Dissecting Carmine: The New Canon, Canadian Poetry, And…Robert Hayden?
Copyright © by Anthony Zanetti, 8/21/08
In 2005, Signal Editions, an imprint of Montreal’s Véhicule Press, published The New Canon: An Anthology of Canadian Poetry, edited by poet and critic Carmine Starnino. The book collects the work of 50 Canadian poets born between 1955 and 1975. Though I’ve had the book since 2006, I’ve not read it cover to cover until now, mostly because, aside from the occasional good selection, many of the poems were boring, with most of the longer poems being especially deadly. Carmine Starnino has a reputation as a ‘tough’ critic within Canadian letters, yet my essay will show that Starnino is a bad editor, and that this stems from the fact that he is a bad critic who has no real ability to discern objective quality in art—the duty of the genuine critic. The New Canon offers all the necessary proof for this argument, but I will also address a brief personal correspondence that took place between Starnino and myself in 2007, which demonstrates that Starnino’s critical cluelessness extends beyond the realm of Canadian poetry.
The New Canon was released in a time when there is a surfeit of such anthologies, not to mention poetry periodicals in general. With the sheer amount of low quality poetry circulating, these anthologies could have served a very practical purpose for casual readers, culling the best work for those who don’t want to sift through endless magazines and poetry collections to find a good poem. Yet anthologies are frequently abused in contemporary publishing, primarily because the reader is no longer the reason for their existence. They have now become just another publication credit for the resumes of assorted bad poets, who must accumulate such (as well as every minor award or prize) in order to compete with the thousands of would-be poets out in MFA-land. Often those who select the poems for inclusion are biased poets interested only in promoting those in their ‘network’, or they are editors with no critical acumen—or both. Starnino appears to be one of these ‘hybrid’ editors, and aside from his actual selections, his long-winded and unnecessary introduction shows why this is the case.
At just over twenty pages, Starnino’s introduction unwittingly sums up the book perfectly; like many of the poems that follow, it is overwritten, tedious and a chore to read. If nothing else, it explains why the anthology fails, for it reveals that there is really no critical strategy at work in the selection process—the only thing governing what poems appear in the book are Starnino’s own biases. He basically favours the Canadian equivalent of what critic Dan Schneider has called ‘snooze-inducing neo-formalism,’ which has been alive in the United States for some time. This particular section of the poetry world champions classical forms and technical skill, yet often produces mediocre, dull and prosaic writing shoved into poetic forms. Oblivious to this fact, Starnino basically positions his anthology as a corrective against often prosaic “Canadian classics” (exemplified by the work of Al Purdy) and the emperor=has=no=clothes avant-garde. The problem is that the bad formalism he proffers is as insipid as the prose broken into lines that has been typical in Canadian poetry, and it only spurs on those equally talentless people in the avant-garde, for even a bad ‘experimental’ writer will know, if only intuitively, that many of the poems in The New Canon are boring and poorly wrought.
In arguing for the superiority of his own anthology, Starnino runs through a list of previous Canadian anthologies, remarking that many are hit and miss, and haven’t aged well. Addressing Dennis Lee’s 1985 The New Canadian Poets anthology, Starnino argues against Lee’s ‘eclectic’ selections, which ‘respected “the grain of the period” at the expense of the poetry of the period.’ This essentially means that Lee may have ‘represented’ different strains within Canadian poetry, but did not select the poems based on the quality of the writing. The obvious lesson from this is that taste-based anthologies will always have an expiry date, and at first it seems that Starnino recognizes this. He states, “Poets deserve a criticism—and a canon—that can recognize why their product is poetry,” and that “Anthologies cannot be all things to all people, but they can never give up on the first principle of their existence: to find good poems.” Yet incredibly, in the same introduction, he writes that anthologies are “exercises in tastemaking,” and that “I chose only what I liked; a principle of selection that gauged a poem’s pleasure-giving quotient, not its suitability for school or movement.” Here, Starnino has failed to realize that taste is just as much of a bias as a preference for “school or movement.” Taste is a personal expression of an individual, and is useless in art criticism, where the focus is on the objective existence of the art object.
At the very least, it is clear that Starnino knows that something is wrong with published poetry, if only intuitively, and will often make statements that seem to show insight. For instance, he remarks: “Sound poetic practice is seen as too fussbudget to take seriously, reviews are little more than blurb-writing exercises, and almost no one can explain any principle behind why we do what we do.” These statements are true, and would lead one to think that Starnino himself would produce the much-needed antidote to what he describes. Discussing The New Canon poets, he claims that they “seem to insist that what they say be judged by how they say it,” and that “these poems are about thinking in action.” Again, he is correct in stating poetry succeeds in how, not what, it says, and his comment about ‘thinking in action’ even evokes a notion put forth by a superior critic, who argues “philosophy is ideas, but art is ideas in motion.” Yet, these seeming moments of insight in his essay are as random as the occasional good poem that pops up in the anthology.
Even after his critique of blurb-ready reviews, which are a result of incestuous networking, Starnino makes sure to palliate some of those poets who weren’t included in ‘the new canon.’ “There’s no question this salon des réfuses would itself comprise a fine and valuable anthology,” he says after listing off several Canadian poets who aren’t in the book. The truth is that Starnino could have included work by all of those supposedly excellent rejects, because the format of his anthology is entirely self-imposed; he prioritizes poets over individual poems, representing 50 poets with usually 4-5 poems apiece. This makes The New Canon a sort of sampler of the work of those 50 poets instead of a collection of the best poems Starnino could find. The reality is that many of those 50 poets don’t deserve to be in any anthology, and the better poets he includes are usually not represented by uniformly excellent selections. While this is typical of anthologies that collect classic poets in English literature, this editing strategy shows that Starnino lacks the vision necessary to truly argue for a ‘new canon’ based on quality writing. His verbose intro was rendered even more pointless a year after the anthology’s release, when in an interview with the Northern Poetry Review, Starnino himself undermines the soundness of his critical selections:
As an editor, do your tastes evolve? Do you think, if you set out to do
the same collection in ten years, working with the same age constraint--poets
born between 1955 and 1975--you would ultimately choose the same poems again?
As an editor, fixed positions are fatal. To use Don Paterson's terms, you have to think of yourself as a verb, not a noun. Part of the problem is that it's very easy to fall back on nounness, to live your life exercising the same intellectual skill set provided by your past enthusiasms. Having said that however, if I've done my job then, yes, I would hope that some of the poets would need to be selected again because the work has survived, the poems have stayed good despite my changing relationship to them. So if I could do that in ten years, I would hold my head up high. But there's no doubt that my interests would shift, and indeed I've already fallen out with a few poets in the anthology, poets for whom my honest attempt at a sympathetic reading didn't "stick". No reason to name names, but I will say that Jason Camlot, Adam Levin, and Craig Poile are three poets I'd be tempted to include if I had to resurvey the field. I also think I'd take a closer look at Lisa Robertson.
That Starnino would change his mind barely a year after the book’s publication (conveniently not naming the names of those he’d now discard) is absurd, for the inherent quality of the poems didn’t change in that span of time. His ‘falling out’ with some of the poets suggests that they were only in the anthology to begin with because of some personal connection, i.e. for emotional rather than critical reasons. Ultimately, this is why the book amounts to being just another Canadian limb of the North American corpse that is published poetry. And now: let the autopsy begin.
A former professor of mine once said, “Form makes content.” Back then I was unable to explain my visceral rejection of this statement, but Starnino’s editorial choices prove that maxim untrue; form, in the grip of an inadequate mind, makes nothing. The New Canon is a torturous read because many of the poems within are boring and generally unpoetic, and are not nearly as formally adventurous as Starnino would claim. The subject matter tends to be forgettable and mundane, and there is often a lack of any real artistic talent, which leads to bad music, forgettable phrasing, and technically weak poems. To see an example of a really bad poem Starnino has included, let’s look at “Port” by Diana Brebner. Clichés are underlined, and // is for bad line breaks.
Sometimes the tricks you learn as a child
useful later on. When I was beaten
raped I learned to move myself away
to a place without pain or degradation,
to stick it out and watch at a distance,
and never to vomit. I have been lucky
in joy, and have felt exultation. I have
been moved to tears and, nowadays,
I am hardly ever beside myself. I’ve//
read that there is a science of pain
management. I think I could be an//
expert. When the surgeon removed
my port, small metal disc implanted
just under the skin of my shoulder
to make delivery of chemotherapy less
painful (and which, by the way, was
never used by the tired nurses in a hurry
who could just stick an intravenous in
a good vein and get on with it), he was//
doublebooked and did the procedure
during his lunch hour. I liked this man,
he spoke honestly and listened to me
but everyone has their bad days and//
this was one. In the outpatient surgery
he began and I wondered, idly, why
I could feel so much, my shoulder
deadened with anaesthetic. We talked
and he worked and I said I could feel
his hands and the instruments as he//
worked and he said: No you cannot.
Can. Cannot. Can. Mutual panic
as the pain increased and he knew
he was alone, had to proceed, could
not call for help and I said: OK, Listen up.
I have gone to the top of a mountain
it is very cold, so cold I am
frozen and cannot feel, but I can see.
And way, way down at the bottom of//
the mountain there you are, tending
a fire. I can see the red flames and//
imagine the heat but here I am, up at//
the peak, feeling nothing. He looked
at me strangely and was silent, worked
quickly and then left me, quite alone.
I waited a long time up on that//
mountain but gradually the fire went
out, and he never did come back.
I got up, and walked home, was//
a body but not wholly connected.
As the afternoon wore on, the cold//
off. I began to shake: my//
frozen, my teeth chattering. I//
couldn’t stop shaking and imagined
someone lost in a storm, perhaps
at sea, hoping like crazy to make//
it to port, to the safe place that is//
calm, and the first thing to do when//
arrive is to be sick to your//
stomach, to know you have survived
but also to know that out there,
in the dark centre of destruction,
someone you loved, and had known
so well she might have been yourself
was lost, irretrievably, at sea.
What is odd about this selection it that a critic so concerned with ‘form’ would choose such an ill-formed poem. Aside from being broken into 4 lined stanzas, there is no real skill with ‘form’ on display here, especially with her line breaks. Line breaks contribute significantly to the overall shape and soundness of the poem’s structure, and Brebner cuts off her lines with no regard for the independence of the individual line, much less the suggestive possibilities that enjambment can provide. Some line breaks do work, such as the break at “was” with the following:
to make delivery of chemotherapy less
painful (and which, by the way, was
never used by the tired nurses in a hurry
In context, the line indicates that chemotherapy was painful regardless of the attempt to lessen pain, but then the sentence completes itself to indicate that the port was never used by the “nurses in a hurry.” Yet there are clearly several bad enjambments throughout the rest of the poem that undermine the idea that Brebner knew what she was doing with those line breaks that work. Her breaks at an “at” or an “of” or an “and” have no syllabic justification. So far, this poem is not making a good case for Canadian formalism.
Though there are some musical connections made by alliteration and assonance, there’s no great use of music, which is in part why this poem seems so prosaic. Though the leap from the metal port for injection to that of a harbour could have been interesting, there’s none of that Keatsian magic happening here. The clichés, underlined, make the poem dull, particularly since Brebner has no great phrases or images to counter them. In some cases, the clichés are narrative, such as her banal ‘confessional’ statement about being ‘beaten or raped’—the subject of countless bad poems over the years. Then there is the melodrama of lines such as the “dark centre of destruction.” In a way, this poem reminds me of Frida Kahlo’s similarly one-dimensional meditation on pain called “The Broken Column,” which also has unsubtle & melodramatic touches such as the Sailor Moon-like tear drops, as well as the nails hammered into her skin. Kahlo, though, if unable to engage, at least flashed some tit in order to titillate.
Was the selection of this poem motivated simply because of its superficial engagement with ‘form,’ which, as I’ve shown, lacks any real discipline? From what I’ve scanned about Brebner online, she had a reputation for engaging with formalism before it was fashionable in Canada. Yet perhaps the subject matter, along with the knowledge that Diana Brebner died of cancer, has clouded critical vision. In a puff piece that profiles Starnino’s criticism and poetry, Billy Coyle praises this mediocrity, stating, ‘Diana Brebner, who succumbed to cancer in 2001, composed a quietly stunning, and unfortunately unexcerptable, poem about her illness, titled “Port.”’ Of course, “quietly stunning” says nothing specific about the poem, and not excerpting the poem, and therefore its technical flaws and clichés, conveniently prevents the reader from coming to their own critical conclusions. Starnino himself commented specifically on “Port” in the Northern Poetry Review, where he stated:
What moves me, for example, in Diana Brebner's anti-cancer cry "Port"…is hardly its sentiment, but the astringent mode of its narrative, the varying tones and tensions of its grief-logic. Poems are driven by emotion, yes, but the poetryness of poetry, if you well [sic], is about finding equivalences between sound and feeling.
That he would defend this poem, in the same interview where he admits that not all of his selections were sound, truly boggles the mind. He makes no mention of the string of clichés that make the narrative tedious and devoid of any real art, and one could say that the sound matches the ‘feeling’ of the poem only insofar as it is prosaic and dull. The Brebner poem sums up what is wrong with many of the other poems in the anthology, as they are often artless prose crammed into stanzas of three, four, or five lines. Let’s look at an example of one that fares better than most, titled (groan) “At the College”:
At The College
Serpentine, the path unwinds its innocence
from building to building in flickering shade
where my students feed lazy raccoons muffins
and glazed doughnuts, as if to domesticate
the last wild things on this suburban campus,
though nothing can make the few deer unafraid
of engines, words, footfalls, the human rumpus,
or subdue the fox’s wily nonchalance
and teach him not to kill anything helpless.
Here, among these fierce and sentimental students,
I stand on the edge of a world not my own,
snatching small goods from the large irrelevance
of what we do, making the old sorrows known
to children bearing their first calamities,
teaching solitudes to the newly alone,
explaining writers’ exile to refugees,
and notions of intrinsic worth to half-fledged
bankers, already driving smart Mercedes.
Yet they live by their hope, curiously pledged
to some afterness that will reward and bless
them for gifts that nature leaves unacknowledged
or earnest labours I grade at B or less;
they know some need of love that poets speak to,
and few can absent their hearts from every class,
however many dronings they may sleep through;
they will mark a perfect image or a phrase
and hear it years from now, wilder then and new.
This poem by Richard Greene is written in near-terza rima, and is better than the Brebner-level poems in that it is more focused and not as long, and because it is a stronger use of a form. The poem is not dragged down by endless clichés and bad line breaks, as with Brebner’s poem, and the form helps provide some musical effects, even if there are otherwise no outstanding uses of such. The last line is good, in that Greene doesn’t end with the more predictable ‘then and now,’ but ‘then and new,’ which is a nice little twist in what is otherwise a mediocre work—similar to how a good line break in the Brebner poem seems entirely random. The poem simply lacks any particularly unique idea, phrase, or image to lift it beyond being the mere reflections of a complacent professor. In a way, this poem perfectly exemplifies what the term ‘formalist’ evokes at this time: poems where a form is detectable, but no poem of consequence is. There is simply no great moment of poetry in this piece; it is just flat and competent verse, though it is better than the Brebner poem.
Let’s now look at a poem by Steven Heighton that I argue is one of the best poems that Starnino has included in his ‘canon’.
Four strides the legs compass, close,
burst gravity’s shell and vault
as sunrise at the pole bends
back, sickles the sun-
sleek arc of dolphin, diver, gull,
his skull at noon and hovering. There
the body contends with higher things—
sharp light, thinning air; the eclipse
and setting of records; a fixed
orbit he believes he frames. At his height
he wavers, reels like a lover and prays
his lunging survives him
in a perfect act; feels time
tug at his second hand
as the earth draws breath, pole
and body into ground. Hear it:
a hissing of wind in the high
arena, and his spikes
rattle, raised like knuckles at the sky.
This poem has some good music as a result of a skilled use of alliteration and assonance. There are also no real clichés to pull the poem into banality, and there are interesting lines such as the one about time tugging at the second hand—implying both the athlete and a watch. The poem is well-broken, so that a line can imply more than it would if were just written out in a paragraph; for example, the line “sharp light, thinning air; the eclipse” seems to describe an actual astronomical event, but the next line completes the thought with “and setting of records.” Yet both ideas can penetrate the reader’s mind because of the enjambment. One could argue that had Heighton broken the line “as the earth draws breath, pole” at ‘breath,’ the line would have more strongly suggested that the earth was breathing, before the line completed itself to communicate the effect of gravity. But generally, this is a well-crafted poem that goes beyond the Greene and Brebner poems.
So how is it that these three poems, so different in quality, can all be shoved together in the same anthology? Simple: Starnino doesn’t see the qualitative differences between them. Brebner takes a generic structure and fills it in poorly; Greene shows some formal skill but lacks any great ideas or mastery of imagery, music and phrasing; and Heighton consciously and skilfully structures his ideas into art. While these are only three of the poems in The New Canon, they do represent the wildly divergent quality of the poems within, and unfortunately poems like “High Jump” are rarities in this book.
Furthermore, in an anthology that boasts formal skill and innovation, Starnino’s selections don’t do a good job of demonstrating thematic and formal variety with individual poets. Here are two poems from Joe Denham:
Stiff as a crustacean’s carapace
we cram into rain gear and stretch
on gloves to the auxiliary’s muffled yodel
and the gargle of percolating coffee
A quick cup and smoke on deck
with some Nice to see your smashed-
asshole face this mornin’, then toque
and flashlight on, and climb down
into the forty-below-Celsius hold.
Bent into the boat’s cramped belly
cold air clasps our lungs in a metallic
vice—crystallized into ice upon inhale,
melts to mist with each exhale—as we
load totes down through the hole’s
narrow mouth, feed it the frozen flesh
we caught and killed last night.
[I copied this as it appears in the anthology, so I don’t know if Denham chose to leave out the period at the end of the fourth line, or if this is just another typo typical of the overall anthology.]
This is a good poem with some nice musical effects, images and phrasing (especially lines 11-13), and the seemingly banal title is subverted by the fact that it alludes to the frozen fish that feed the boat, and not just the coffee and smoke at the beginning as expected. The poem includes both colloquial speech and more self-consciously poetic moments, unlike many other poems that aim for colloquialism at the expense of any real poetry. Here is another Denham poem that Starnino has included that isn’t as good:
Black mesh torn by the rock shelf’s clinging
resistance, its gnarled-tooth gnawing, this trap’s
become a sieve all but octopus, Dungeness
and dogfish slip through. Between
strings I take the mending needle
spooled with green twine, stitch
the gaps the way my skipper sealed
the gash in his own palm
when a hook embedded in the line
hauled through his hand and ripped it open.
Everything out here is sharp-edged,
broken. Half our time working with holes
we’ve no time to mend. I take
each spare moment to the frayed ends:
reef for tension, knot the twine,
and cinch down tight.
This poem doesn’t have the mnemonic hooks that made the previous one memorable, and while the title can refer to the work done with the mending needle as well as the ‘mending’ of the physical and mental variety, it is a more obvious connection. There are some good line breaks, such as with the first line, and some good musical effects, but you can see that the poem is roughly the same length as the previous poem, and that it has the same general content of a person at work; this repeats with the other selections, which have titles like “Splicing” and “Gutting.” The result is that the poems start to seem the same, with the better poems being diluted in context.
Thus, even with his better inclusions, Starnino does not show the breadth of form and subject matter that necessarily defines a poet of quality, especially when championing poets who are supposedly skilled with form. This is another reason why Starnino’s ‘sampler format’ was a bad choice, because focusing on individual poems could have shown a greater variety and felicity with form that some of the individual poets lack (or appear to as a result of the poems chosen). Overall, The New Canon is not a volume that lives up to its name, for a few good poems are not enough to hold up the edifice that Starnino has constructed, nor are they enough to argue that anything remarkable is happening with poetry in Canada.
Criticism Of The New Canon By Others
In looking for criticism of The New Canon, I discovered that the poet Lynn Crosbie had reviewed the anthology in the University of Toronto Quarterly. I was eager to see what she might say about it; Crosbie’s own poems are far more engaging than many of The New Canon poems because of her unique imagery and risks with subject matter, and despite her weaknesses with line breaks, her kind of poetry was sorely missed from this anthology. However, her brief write-up is not worth much as criticism. She attacks Starnino’s own poetry, none of which is actually in The New Canon, remarking that his verse is “so weak and so gutless, one would burn it from a greeting card.” She also hints at a bias in the selection towards “The Montreal Mafia” (none of whom she identifies), and relates that the book sold poorly at a particular Toronto bookstore. When it comes to assessing the contents, she says:
“While The New Canon contains a number of excellent poets, including Gil Adamson, Ken Babstock, Walid Bitar, David McGimpsey, Karen Solie, and more, there are some dreadful inclusions too, whom I will not name, because I, unlike Starnino, do not wish to carve a tiny niche for myself by attacking other writers.”
Of course, she offers no tangible proof of the poetic excellence of those she names in her review, and her not naming the bad poets is a critical copout. The problem with Starnino is not that he ‘attacks’ other writers by writing negative criticism, but that he does not really know what makes some poems better than others, rendering his negative reviews worthless. On the matter of Starnino’s own poetry: though not the focus of this essay, I will say that Starnino shows greater formal skill in his own work than many of those he has included in his anthology. The contradiction between Starnino the critic/editor and Starnino the poet can be explained by the simple fact that many good artists do not necessarily make good critics, because an artist can work from intuition alone, while a real critic must be able to understand the artwork and defend his judgments intellectually. This issue is not one limited to poetry, either; Ingmar Bergman may have directed great films, but his assertion that Michelangelo Antonioni only directed two films of worth is critically unjustifiable.
Crosbie seems to be in the same boat as Starnino; as proof, one only need look at a poem by a New Canon author championed by both. Here is a poem by Gil Adamson:
It’s night in unpleasant coincidence.
An eclipse yet.
We leave the rain-soaked horses in the hotel bar
which has no roof, no walls, no bar.
Women are everywhere in lighted tents,
their heads making fists of shadow.
But because I am dressed like a man,
I must stand out here and wallow in my success.
The galaxies spin overhead, getting a bead on us all.
We prey for food and a terrified bird
falls into our hands. I get the feet.
“Let’s go,” says my chorus of lice.
“Let’s get out of here.”
But that’s what they said last time,
and now look where we are.
This is not a good poem. The title is repeated in the first line, which makes it seem even more banal. This poem doesn’t have strong music, and reads like straight prose. The musical aspect of poetry is key to helping the language ascend out of the prosaic and into the poetic—and it is a hidden structural element of poetry, as like sounds create links from line to line and contribute to the overall coherence of the poem. Without any great music, readers are left with an unremarkable narrative and forgettable attempts at imagery (“fists of shadow”) and levity (the chorus of lice in the last stanza). Her other poems in the anthology are equally prosaic.
In his review for Books in Canada, Abou Farman writes an essentially negative review, stating “As I read on, I find myself thinking, shouldn’t poetry be more than ornamented prose plus line breaks and neat metrics?” The excerpts he includes offer further proof of the prosaic and lethally boring poems that compose the bulk of the anthology, yet he does not name the authors of those bad poems he excerpts. What are you afraid of, Abou? He also correctly notes that the selections are not consistently good with each author, yet singles out the execrable Brebner poem as an example of a good poem:
“I may have done disservice to a few I’ve not mentioned only because the selections are not consistently good. Diana Brebner, for example, glows in only one poem here, “Port”, in which her empathy and fears meet to cause havoc…”
This is not a critical assessment of the Brebner poem, but just the typical language used in blurbs, and from someone who should know better, especially since his review nails bad line breaks in other New Canon poems. Elsewhere, other, more positive critical pieces also fail to illuminate. In James Pollack’s overall positive assessment in www.poetryreviews.ca, he admits that he only found 14 of the 50 poets ‘convincing,’ a poor yield even though he thinks 14 out of 50 is ‘extraordinary’ according to the standards of most contemporary anthologies. While he excerpts poems from some of the better poets, he writes blurb-like praise for poems that are solid at best. Consider this passage on a contribution by Sue Sinclair:
The poems of Sue Sinclair recall the German modernist Rainer Maria
Rilke’s New Poems, his “thing-poems” as he called them,
in their meditative focus on one small thing at a time: a red pepper, a green
pepper, a pitcher, collar bones, shoes in a shop window. Like Rilke’s,
Sinclair’s descriptions are richly metaphorical, and her chosen objects
ultimately become tropes for aspects of our humanity. Consider the last stanza
of “Red Pepper,” for instance, a poem in which the poet tells us the pepper
is “The size/ of your heart”:
He then provides an excerpt from the end of the poem, and states:
Sinclair’s art is an art of transformation, of taking a closely-observed object into the imagination and changing it there, and she does so very movingly.
Here is the poem in full:
Forming in globular
convolutions, as though growth
were a disease, a patient
evolution toward even greater
deformity. It emerges
from under the leaves thick
and warped as melted plastic,
its whole body apologetic:
the sun is hot.
Put your hand on it. The size
of your heart. Which may look
like this, abashed perhaps,
growing in ways you never
It is almost painful
to touch, but you can’t help
yourself. It’s so familiar.
The dents. The twisted symmetry.
You can see how hard it has tried.
In fact, Sinclair’s poetry is unlike anything I’ve read from Rilke’s New Poems, for she does not depart significantly from rote description of the physical object; there is none of the skill with music and imagery that creates the rapturous lyricism of “Archaic Torso of Apollo,” for example, nor is there the ability to suddenly turn away from the thrust of the overall poem with a direct and seemingly banal statement, like “You must change your life.” Sinclair’s concluding line is good, in that the final word gives the ‘thing’ a sentient will of its own; yet it doesn’t have the same impact as the Rilke line because there is a general flatness to her whole poem. Note that “Archaic Torso of Apollo” is also a sonnet, and an example of how great poetry is in its own category, transcending the ‘formalist’ label. While the Sinclair poem isn’t a bad poem, there is just not a comparable level of mastery, formally or otherwise, which is why Pollack’s reference to Rilke is inapt. It should also be noted that Pollack singles out the bad Brebner poem “Port” as one that he ‘likes’—yet another critic falling under the sway of that woman’s badly wrought emotionalisms.
Overall, whether positive or negative, reviews of The New Canon do a poor job of really showing where the book succeeds and fails & why, and that the reason the anthology is a bad one is due to the fact that Starnino is a bad critic who cannot discern quality.
Starnino’s Criticism & Robert Hayden
To further support my argument that Starnino doesn’t know what he’s talking about, let’s move to an example of his criticism that is beyond The New Canon and Canadian poetry. In 2007, I noticed an article in The Globe and Mail titled “Poetry Makes Things Happen,” where assorted Canadian poets talked about poets, poems and lines that stay with them. Starnino had his own entry:
Carmine Starnino: A poem I keep
going back to -- in fact, know by heart -- is Robert Hayden's (1913-1980)
impossibly beautiful Those Winter Sundays. It's a love poem to his father, and a
unflinching assessment of the way, as children, we are blithely oblivious to
how our happiness and contentment is underwritten by parental sacrifice.
The last lines, with their nearly inconsolable cadences -- "What did I
know, what did I know/ of love's austere and lonely offices?" -- are, for
my money, among the loveliest in English poetry. Hayden is a well-regarded
African-American poet, but Those Winter Sundays is possibly his only lyric of
any worth. And what it confirms is that what counts, in the end, are poems
rather than poets.
Note his remark about poems vs. poets, following my assessment of The New Canon. I read this paragraph with interest, because Starnino’s claim that Hayden only had one lyric of any worth is the exact opposite of Dan Schneider’s essay that argues that Hayden is a great and neglected poet. Schneider suggested that I email Starnino about it, which I did:
I read your commentary about Robert Hayden in the Globe & Mail a little while back and wrote about it a bit in my blog. I agree that Those Winter Sundays is a great poem, but was surprised to see that you didn't think he had anything else that was good, especially after reading an essay that argues that Hayden is in fact a great & neglected poet. I don't have any collections of his and have only read a few individual poems, but I'm wondering if you might reconsider your position if you read the essay & some of the Hayden poems that are included in it.
I then provided a link to my
poetry blog, which had a link to the Cosmoetica essay on Hayden. When
Starnino replied, he said:
Not sure what more I can add to my statement. It wasn’t meant to be controversial, nor to impugn Hayden. I read the Cosmoetica essay, and remain unconvinced. Hayden moves me especially because of the reasons you (and others) are resisting: he is an ordinary poet who wrote an extraordinary poem. Any attempt to argue otherwise — any attempt try to give Hayden a hand that he wasn’t dealt, namely being a “neglected” poem [sic] — is made for sentimental reasons.
What these ‘sentimental’ reasons are were not made clear, as I didn’t express any particular emotional attachment to Hayden, and the Schneider essay focuses on specific merits of Hayden’s work, such as his technical skill and his variety in form and subject matter. For example, have a look at this excerpt where Schneider discusses how Hayden subverts the expected in his poem “Middle Passage”:
“…Another factor is how wisely RH approaches the tale- it is told
from, as far as I can tell, the perspectives of assorted white folk- the
Amistad’s crew, some court staff, & the occasional omniscient voice.
Nowhere is there a ‘black’ voice in this mini-black epic! How clever of this
black poet to use this poem not only to tell the tale that few knew, but tell it
from POV’s that are suspect. Your average reader & critic have never
picked up on this point, BUT it’s there, & slyly undermines the veracity
of the speakers within the poem, much as the breathlessness of the runagate
slave in Runagate Runagate mimics that character’s. In almost every
poem of import in the RH canon a good reader is rewarded by the active mind
& desire to push convention that RH possessed, & that almost no
published poets today own.”
This is a decidedly un-sentimental critical assessment. In contrast, recall Starnino’s admission that he would discard some of the New Canon poets he’d initially chosen, which can only be explained by his own sentimental biases. Now attend to that smoke writhing out from Starnino’s pretense of being a critic—your toast is ready.
Since my exchange with Starnino, I did acquire Hayden’s Collected (not Complete) Poems, and I can say that it is a far more judiciously selected volume than The New Canon, and that Hayden’s best work easily trumps anything from Starnino’s anthology. Since the Schneider essay already discussed strong Hayden poems like “The Whipping,” “Monet’s Waterlilies,” and “Middle Passage,” I’ve selected a couple of other Hayden poems that demonstrate how he transcends ‘the ordinary’:
A Plague of Starlings
Evenings I hear
the workmen fire
into the stiff
routing the starlings
gathered noisy and
terror like glass
coins spilling breaking
the birds explode
into mica sky
to ground rigid
in clench of cold.
The spared return,
when the guns are through,
to the spoiled trees
like choiceless poor
to a dangerous
chitter and quarrel
in the piercing dark
above the killed.
Mornings, I pick
my way past death’s
on campus lawns
And if not careful
I shall tread
carcasses when I
go mornings now
to lecture on
the hemlock hour nigh,
Phaedo and the rest
about the migratory
habits of the soul.
Flip back up to “At The
College”—isn’t this ‘campus poem’ far better? While you can see a bad
line break in the 6th line, you can also see some excellent breaks,
such as ‘to ground rigid/in clench of cold’, which implies both the ground
being rigid before the break, and then the bodies of the starlings being rigid,
after the break. Another example comes at the beginning of the second stanza,
with ‘Their scissoring’ being an interesting image before the second line
makes it refer to ‘terror.’ It should be noted that while Hayden can have
bad line breaks in otherwise strong poems (see his poem “The Diver”), his
poems do not tend to lapse into unmusical clichés, as with a poetaster like
Brebner. A small technical glitch is easily forgotten in the context of a
quality poem; this illustrates that an excellent poem is not the same thing as a
technically perfect poem, for no amount technical skill can fix a dull idea or a
poet’s limited purview. The minor misstep in a Hayden poem is the inverse of
the seemingly random good lines or enjambments in the lesser New Canon
“A Plague of Starlings”
has some excellent images, such as “the birds explode into mica sky.” Hayden
shows he can subvert the expected with his “glass coins,” more interesting
than just mere glass shattering. The poem also gets into the political with the
“choiceless poor” line, but is overall not a didactic political poem; the
starlings remain the dominant and lingering image, and through them he can shift
from descriptions of an event to political commentary to philosophical
allusions. His reference to Socrates is an example of such that works, because
it incorporates a relevant idea and is not just a name-dropping of someone like
Wittgenstein, so typical of other poets.
Here is a poem titled
“Market,” part of a group of poems that make up “An Inference of
lift sweets, haggle
and bloody gelatins.
A broken smile
dandles its weedy
over papayas too ripe
of rotting oranges.
Turkeys like feather-
lie trussed in bunchy smother.
The barefoot cripple
among rinds, orts,
chewed butts, trampled
his hunger litany
and suppliant before
altars of mamey,
Por caridad, por caridad.
Lord, how they stride
on the hard good legs
money has made them.
Ay! you creatures
who have walked on seas of money all
your foreign lives!
Odor of a dripping
beneath the hot
fragrance of carnations,
cool scent of lilies.
hover in the reek
of frying; ashy feet
(the twistfoot beggar laughs)
kick at them in vain.
Aloft, the Fire King’s
flashing mask of tin
looks down with eyes
of sunstruck glass.
This poem is mostly well-enjambed,
without the dangling articles that appear in some of Hayden’s other poems. One
could suggest better ways of breaking a line like “and suppliant before/altars
of mamey,” but overall the line breaks are solid. The poem features many of
the interesting little phrasings that appear in Hayden’s poetry, such as “a
broken smile dandles its weedy cigarette,” “turkeys like feather-duster
flowers lie trussed in bunchy smother,” “twistfoot beggar” and
“sunstruck glass.” The last fourteen lines are particularly excellent, and
Hayden is able to bring together disparate images in a way that coheres in the
overall narrative. The descriptions alone are much more interesting and unique
than those found in the “Red Pepper” poem.
Aside from the poems I’ve
included here and those found in the Dan Schneider essay, other strong Hayden
poems include the rest of “An Inference of Mexico,” “The Diver,” “Aunt
Jemima of the Ocean Waves,” and “Unidentified Flying Object.” In addition
to showing skill with narrative, imagery and music, Hayden’s poetry actually
exemplifies that which Carmine Starnino championed in his introduction to The
New Canon: a poetic manipulation of “everyday English” and “colloquial
speech.” Hayden often writes in an unpretentious style and can take on a
plain-spoken quality, most famously seen in “Those Winter Sundays.” His
poetry is often subtle in its use of music, as well as unusual word choice and
juxtaposition, yet these elements are unquestionably there, and neither of the
two poems I’ve selected can be said to dip into the prosaic. Such can’t be
said of The New Canon, where, after reading Hayden, the inept critical
selection chafes like the chapped grasp of an inexpert handjob.
The example with Hayden shows that Starnino has no ability to recognize poetic accomplishment, period, and that he is therefore incapable of assessing Canada’s contribution to the discipline. With his incorrect appraisal of Robert Hayden, Starnino joins bad critics from America such as Harold Bloom and William Logan, who have dismissed great poets such as Sylvia Plath and Hart Crane, respectively, while championing lesser talents. When critics are wilfully pointing new readers away from excellent poetry, instead directing them to bad and mediocre work from the past 30 years, is it any wonder that most people don’t bother with poetry? It’s time to discredit and discard bad critics like Starnino and their vanity criticism; otherwise, with anthologies like The New Canon, living in an image-based, illiterate society might not be so bad.
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