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Poetry as Needed: David Solway’s Contraries
What follows is a lightly trimmed (from what was, in fact, an unfinished document) and revised version of a review-essay intended (in 2005) for publication in Canadian Literature, but which never made it (not for reasons of quality, I hope, but because – I’m assuming, I’m assuming – of space constraints and special-issue themes, which caused it to be bumped until it became too dated.) I think it still raises some relevant issues, though, and also engages with David Solway’s poetics and poetry in what I hope is a disinterested and rigorous manner. It also bears on current debates over negative reviewing in Canada.
David Solway was fast becoming our Alexander Pope. In the introduction to the 1936 Oxford Book of Modern Verse, W. B. Yeats disparaged T. S. Eliot as “an Alexander Pope, working without apparent imagination.” My intention with this echo isn’t some sort of elaborate literary name-calling, but to describe what I hear as divisiveness informing much of Solway’s work, both poetry and polemic. In the preface to Director’s Cut: Essays (Porcupine’s Quill), Solway acknowledges that his sharp-edged and aesthetically partisan writing may draw “charges of self-righteousness, presumption and pontifical imperiousness of temper” from academic critics who, in his view, immerse themselves in “diffidence and complicity” by praising and promoting the work of inferior or insubstantial writers; he excuses his often harsh, even vindictive tone by claiming the ethical superiority of the satirist, the judiciousness and balanced erudition of a witty man-of-letters — whose crafted, caustic voice is uncannily close to that of Pope’s “Essay on Criticism.” There are several direct and approving citations of the eighteenth-century poet in Solway’s essays, but their relation is more than occasional. Solway’s insistence on rationality and mastery, fitness and form, not just in his own poems but in any good writing, suggests on first pass a transplanted neo-classicism that draws heavily on both Pope and Eliot as its forebears.
Separating the sheep from the goats, as narrowly and as rigorously as he can, appears to be what Solway understands as “responsible” criticism. To seek out “quality work,” he asserts, is to ply “the counter-discourse of antithetical discrimination,” by which he means to be thoroughly and carefully withering toward any Canadian poets whose work he dislikes — which, he openly admits, is most of it. To pull his punches would be “a way of evading responsibility,” and he strives “to cease trading in the usual velleities and placebos that double for criticism in today’s literary environment and embark on a process of audits and disclosures to reveal the real value of most of the work now being mass-produced.” The wool, in other words, needs to be pulled from most of our eyes, and the sloppy populism and prosaic flatness of what passes for poetry needs clearing: so we are invited, rather forcibly, to trust in the surety of Solway’s ear and eye, and in the acuity of his shit-detector. (Irving Layton’s deluded Neruda comes to mind.) And many times this trust pays off. Solway’s enthusiasm for his fellow poets of Anglo-Montreal and environs, including Michael Harris, Robyn Sarah, Peter van Toorn, Eric Ormsby and Carmine Starnino, is catching. And while much of his effusiveness smacks of nepotism and cliquishness — most of those he praises tend to be personal friends and acolytes, a network he openly acknowledges in “Double Exile and Montreal English-Language Poetry” — his exactitude and unflinching engagement with their texts nonetheless sustain his approval, and encourage mine. And while none these poets (perhaps with the exception of van Toorn) is as obscure or unlauded as Solway claims, the very fine poems he cites certainly call out for fuller critical engagement and a wider, thoughtful audience: as wide as poetry might have, these days. Solway makes me want to read more of them than I have, and to keep reading.
There is, however, a backlash to the lauds, which I think is truly unfortunate and which detracts from all this well-deserved praise. Solway seems so invested in contrariety as to be unable to resist attacking, without serving any substantial critical purpose, those whose writing he cannot, usually for merely ideological reasons, abide. His thinking is antagonistic, and often casts him, as the apologist for his cohort, in the role of scrappy underdog. In “The Great Disconnect,” the long-winded ramble from poetry sample to sample that closes his prose collection, he contrives an extended set of duels between counterposed pairs of poets in order to prove the neglected worth of less famous but, in his view, more technically and imaginatively accomplished writers: Ricardo Sternberg defeats Margaret Atwood, Brent MacLaine out-writes Anne Michaels, Norm Sibum takes down George Elliott Clarke, Mary Dalton pins Christian Bök, Carmine Starnino routs Jan Zwicky and, in the final round, Rodney Jones conquers Michael Ondaatje. (There are other crucial matches, although it takes three poets — Ormsby, Harris and Sarah — to overcome Anne Carson, which doesn’t seem sporting, and the spectres of W. H. Auden and Al Purdy grappling for linguistic supremacy is patently absurd.) What strives to pass for critical acuity in such writing is, sadly, too contrived, too forced. Solway seems to me to displace his own need to wrestle with those “bad poets,” this “crowd of mountebanks” (he must have been feeling vaguely Shakespearean), as he tries to labour “in defiance of the aesthetic and political orthodoxies of the times,” and to produce, at times in spite of his contrarian rhetoric, a reactionary orthodoxy of his own; insisting on the artificiality of poetry — on the character of its making — leads him to insist that the poem is a “shapely utterance, . . . a constructed linguistic object irradiated by lexical joy no matter what its subject” (original italics), but I fail to see much of a critical point in such a truism. All of the writers he cites, both pro and con, surely recognize this assertion as a given, and find themselves called to their work by an irreducible love of language. And an insistence on “lexical” joy, while conceptually attractive, is also a troubling blurriness from a writer who insists on verbal precision; I hear next to no joy in Solway’s writing, which leads me to worry over what he might mean by it here, amid the smirking. Given, for example, Jan Zwicky’s pervasive desire to uncover joyous, vital ecologies in poetic metaphor, I can’t help but suspect Solway of being wilfully tone-deaf to the obvious virtues and to the achievement of her writing, and of covering his tracks in misleading mystifications. I still take his enterprise seriously and sincerely, and admire his astringent demand to hear, from any poet, words in their fullness, but I can only deplore the lack of humility or of any willingness to listen beyond his own narrowly drawn poetic confines. For instance, “The Trouble with Annie,” his extended attack on Anne Carson, whom he regards as a poetic imposter, comes off not as “a reality check” but as whiny petulance and petty jealousy at the success of another writer, trying in vain to justify itself as objective critique. (He tends to be hoist by his own pedantic petard, questioning the accuracy of Carson’s scholarship while — when he mistakes a quotation from Virginia Woolf’s manuscripts for Carson’s fragmentary postmodernism, for instance — his own reading turns sloppy and uninformed.) Any possible joy in words ultimately gets reigned in by an astringent measure, his hard critical yardstick. Despite his acclaim for colleagues and mentors, Solway refrains too often from praise, from teaching us how to praise, a task Auden once assigned the poet — and, I think, the poet-critic. Instead, stymied amid so much critical potential, and so richly varied a national poetry, he finally strains to direct his considerable sensitivities toward an ignominious end: picking imaginary fights where he could be discovering imaginative vitalities.
One last point on Solway’s criticism. I think that he would probably be unhappy with the possessive in the opening sentence of my remarks, that “our,” which implicates his work in a kind of cultural nationalism. His essay “The Flight from Canada” offers a cogent and persuasive alternative to what he calls the “Canadian content syndrome,” a canonizing of Canada’s national literature based not on qualitative discriminations but on the mere fact of its being Canadian. Still, Solway doesn’t actually refuse a national cultural thematics so much as re-think it, carefully and provocatively. It isn’t, for him, a question of poetically formulating, or adhering to, an identity but of inhabiting its negation: “it is precisely the comfortless absence of a secure identity, the rootlessness, the sense of radical alienation which is our greatest gift and blessing.” He wants, he asserts, identity “solidly founded in difference.” He becomes ours, in a sense, by refusing us. But claiming a solidness for that foundation also distinguishes his work from more openly alternative poetics; difference, for him, means “that each poet can work up the materials of place and language into that signature alloy we call individual style”; flight is predicated on a thoroughly conservative cosmopolitanism, a flight made radical, in other words, only by its rootedness in the solid ground of a distinctive poetic diction. This conceptual mix may be, at its base, self-contradictory, but surely Solway has managed at least to point up a viable means of confronting poetically, formally, the question of a late nationalism, of the differential ethos of the Canadian.
This somewhat fraught cultural nationalism is inflected by historical narrative in Franklin’s Passage (McGill-Queen’s UP), a book-length sequence of poems by Solway that map out an attempt to re-discover and make sense of John Franklin’s doomed Victorian expedition through the fabled Northwest Passage. Much has been written on, and overwritten, Franklin — including Margaret Atwood’s recent lecture in Strange Things, in which the expedition becomes an archetype for the alienated Anglo-Canadian psyche, more finely developed than her early efforts at a national literary thematics in Survival, but still part of the same cultural project. Rather than contribute more of the same, Solway produces not so much countermyth as a series of reflections on the processes, both solitary and collective, of myth making. In the face of his professed distaste for postmodern antics of pastiche and self-consciousness, Solway appears to want to show us how it’s done: a finer tuned, better turned reflexivity. The collective first-person – some form of a communal Anglo-Canadian voice – shows up, despite Solway’s difficult nationalism, in the first line of the first poem, a “dedicatory” sonnet:
We voyage as companions in ships
there’s no way to abandon or desert – on
authority of Mowat and Berton
who chart our encounters with the weathers
that beset our soul. (2)
Almost emblematically, “Dedicatory” appears as the verso – the flipside – of the collection’s first page, which reprints a set of four epigraphs, as if this poetry were at its best an epigone commentary, an act of coming after if not too late. Years earlier, in “A Poem for my Sons,” Solway cautiously thanks his children “for the rejuvenating faith in epigones” (Selected Poems 59), suggesting both the inevitability of his own position in whatever literary history may come as a late arrival, compelled to be retrospective and deferential, and the poetically empowering humility, of all things, of the afterword, overwhelmed but also revitalized by the long burden of a past. Here, too, faced with the task of retracing not only Franklin’s steps but the tracks of all those who have already written (populist historians like Farley Mowat and Pierre Berton, say), Solway nevertheless affirms the poetic necessity of rewriting, of continuing the process and of remarking the passage of his own work as a writer. He may suspect the tiredness of an thoroughly assimilated Canadian myth, of telling the same old story over again, but he also asserts, plainly, that we have no alternatives but to re-confront what we’ve been told, and to remake something vital of it.
The project, after all, never closes off, as succeeding generations of writers inherit, interpret and retell, driven by a desire for veracity that can never be satisfied by this or that brief hypostasis: “We are always at least one chronicle from the truth.” The need to rectify the fragmentary and unkempt details of human experience into pattern, into the fixity of form, is not predicated, for Solway, on the neatness of fictitious national, cultural or literary archetypes or on any claims of achievement; rather, his formalism remains projective and aspirant, a “dream,” a longing for a completion he recognizes that, however neat or succinct appearances may be, he cannot finally claim:
One way or another we are stuck here,
clenched in the dream that drove us far from home
to confront the narratives we’ve come from
and try to make asymmetries cohere.
Despite the enclosures of the envelope rhyme here, for example, the spectral chiasmus of rime riche and slant rhyme (“. . . from home / . . . come from”), alliteration, vowel echoes marks both an aspiration toward symmetry and the unfinished business of writing itself, as it traces a sustained counterpoint of formal elegance and common, loose chat, the promise of coherence set against “a process called decoherence.” For Solway, Franklin can only ever be “partially intelligible,” which is to say both interpreted and fragmentary; the poet wants to take what remains beyond account, “beyond the imagination / of the present moment,” a vague outside that slips from verbalizing, and give it an accounting: if he can’t ever confirm or uncover historical truth, converting the unknowable “into something / decipherable, / a legible report,” what he can do is account for himself as a mediating, intervening presence in that uncertain history. His measured verse, as he puts it, also “resists the illusion of measurement.”
Even if “there is no way to tell” what happened, even if the writer can only strain to produce “a forced passage,” “as if listening for the sound / that no one else can hear” when faced with an insurmountable barrier of silence, “we can always,” Solway asserts “photograph ourselves,” acknowledging openly that history is never a given but is always made by – and inflected by, fabricated by – somebody doing the telling: “We can always tell another story.” This accounting becomes far more than deferential acknowledgement in Solway’s text; out of “the kingdom of contingency” – a moniker, it sounds to me, for the postmodern condition and for an attendant dearth of cultural literacy and historical sense lamented by academics such as Fredric Jameson – Solway draws both healthy refusal, that inherent formal resistance, and a renewed vitality; even if poems appear to become “a casting of words / accounting for nothing but recurrence,” that accounting also finds its passage in the same “arc of discovery and loss” that Solway imagines in Franklin, a reflexive vacillation that “bear[s] us back, astonished, to ourselves.” Poetry can still astonish, even amid the self-involvement of a deprived and faltering present. There isn’t much of the historical Franklin in Solway’s book; it’s mostly about Solway, trying to compose for himself viable historical poetics, and to enact it. But, frankly, that’s the point: poetry as aspiration, effort, remaking – poetry as needed, as need.
Poet Yves Gosselin, despite his candid admission in his preface that “[il] connai[t] peu David Solway,” offers a fine and representative overview of Solway’s work, translating forty-odd poems as Poèmes choisis 1963-2003 (Éditions du Noroît). Solway had for some time published translations of Québécois poetry in Books in Canada – I am not sure if he has translated Gosselin’s work or not – but in some measure these translations return the favour. While Gosselin’s own poetry tends (to my ear, at least) toward concision and declarative rigour generally in a rather clipped short line – peruse such volumes as his Programme pour une mort lente and Les guerres sont éternelle, or the more recent La mort d’Arthur Rimbaud (the latter also from Noroît) – his versions of Solway are much less compact or honed. For example, Solway’s “Pip” – a lyric from his 1979 collection Mephistopheles and the Astronaut that describes the “slow disintegration to his elements” of a man lost at sea, a figure, perhaps, for Solway himself as disillusioned poet-critic – loses much of its sonic craft, its carefully worked echolalia, when provocative and sharply edged conceits like “lonely in the frantic vatican of himself” get converted by Gosselin into prosaic précis: “solitaire au milieu de sa proper agitation.” The sense is there, but the poetry has fallen away. Compare
Encompassed by the hard horizon, he pondered
his gradual declination to the void,
his northless destiny, his loony afternoons
and slow disintegration to his elements
Cerné par l’horizon impityoable, il a pris la mesure
de sa derive progressive vers le néant,
de son destine sans direction, de ses après-midi de folie
et de sa disintegration lente, réduit à ses elements[.]
“Cerné” – encircled or surrounded – is a nice choice here, and suggests, I think, a certain tightness or enclosure against the deathly limitlessness of the ocean, but it also elides the sustained metaphor that surfaces in Solway’s lines, that of magnetic north; Gosselin’s version is literally north-less, which essentially catches Solway’s drift here but loses its textures. While I can’t expect Gosselin to reproduce Solway’s phonemic music in French, I think it’s fair to ask, given Gosselin’s obvious verbal craft in his own work, for more than a crib or gloss on the original. The hardness of the poem is, I think, an essential aspect of its presentation, and something of that sculptural deftness needs to come across in translation. The opening of Solway’s earlier “New England Poets” – “New England poets grow tall and coniferous. / They are famous for their disciplined metres / and their evergreen intelligence.” – articulates with measured irony the uncompromised relationship to poetic discipline that Solway’s criticism also constantly pursues: he notes the poets’ metrical regularity in a line that both lightly and deliberately overwhelms its rhythmic containments. Gosslelin’s version, however, seems to lose its boundaries altogether:
Les poètes de la Nouvelle Angleterre sont grandes, ce sont des confères.
Ils sont célèbres pour leurs poésie bien sage
et leur esprit de conservation séduit toujours les generations d’étudiants.
Again, key tropes – “evergreen” – get dropped and over-reaching glosses – what students are those? – get introduced, but these things happen in any translation; what concerns me, though, is the rhythmic incoherence of the lines themselves, their relinquishing of muscle-tone or definition. To be fair, Gosselin’s translations offer moments of intensity, of thick poetic cross-pollination, but all too often the crisp edges of Solway’s lines are lost in Gallic sesquipedalian diction. Still, in returning the favour of translation, Gosselin gestures toward invigorating a key trajectory of Solway’s cosmopolitan cultural flight.