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Carmine’s CanLit

A Lover’s Quarrel by Carmine Starnino. Porcupine’s Quill, 2004.

The New Canon: An Anthology of Canadian Poetry. Edited by Carmine Starnino. Vehicule Press, 2006.

As Reviewed By: Bill Coyle

Halfway though the title essay of A Lover’s Quarrel, his collection of reviews and essays on Canadian poetry, Carmine Starnino writes, “If Joseph Brodsky can declare poetry to be humanity’s anthropological destiny, then Canadian poetry is possibly its evolutionary dead-end.” Readers in Canada may be either delighted or outraged by that statement, but chances are few Americans will have the requisite background to judge its truth or falsity. In part, this is due to American ignorance of poetry being written in the rest of the English speaking world-the British Isles included. In part it’s because Canadian literature, like Canada itself, is a relatively young phenomenon, and there is correspondingly less of it. And in part, Starnino says, it’s because of critical and poetic factors that have made the emergence of world-class poetry in Canada both more difficult both to create and to identify.

One of these factors is what Starnino refers to as CanLit, which he describes as a kind of quasi-official plain style-muted, modest, afraid of musicality-the result of an informal collusion among poets, critics, bureaucrats, and literary historians. In Starnino’s view, their mistake has been primarily to define themselves in negative terms-not British, not American-and to attach an esthetic value to specifically Canadian subject matter. To parody this view, rhyme and meter are bad because they’re colonial inheritances (as opposed to, say, parliamentary democracy?) while loons crying out on a misty lake are authentic because they’re indigenous. The result, according to this argument, is that much Canadian poetry is-no pun intended-provincial.

Against CanLit, Starnino sets a tradition of altogether more expansive, cosmopolitan writers. Some, like Irving Layton, P.K. Page and A.M. Klein, have received acclaim at home and abroad. Others, like Charles Bruce and Richard Outram, I’d never heard of before reading this book. Not to put too fine a point on it, then, A Lover’s Quarrel attempts a rereading of a national literature and to influence the future course of that literature. It’s an ambitious project, even for someone writing in a small, relatively young country, but Starnino is an ambitious guy. The son of Italian immigrants, he has established himself as one of the most prominent men of letters in his country through his tireless and important work as a critic, anthologist, and poet. He’s also one of its more controversial figures, referred to variously as “an attack dog” and “an assclown.”

Perhaps that kind of reaction isn’t surprising. Canadians are not a markedly confrontational bunch (separatist movements notwithstanding), and even here in the States a critic like William Logan can provoke cries of outrage (not to mention threats of physical violence). I compare Starnino to William Logan, but to my mind Starnino is the better reviewer of the two. I never get the sense (though this is pure speculation, as I can’t see into either man’s soul) that Starnino is out to savage a given poet simply because it can be done, or that he actually prefers poetic failure to success. (Logan has become expert over the years at zinging even the poets he likes with offhanded, outré metaphors, but he too often strikes me as the sort of ghoul who likes NASCAR for the crashes.) On the first page of the introduction, Starnino warns, “Much of the writing in A Lover’s Quarrel had its origins in anger: anger at the unmerited neglect of a poet, anger at the overblown fanfare attending a book, and anger at the circumstances conspiring to ensure that poems in this country to be crudely read.” That sentence struck me when I was rereading the book: I wouldn’t have used the word “anger” in this context; exasperation is more like it. What you have in Starnino is not so much a Jeremiah railing against the sins of his people as a man driven to the point of saying, “Oh come on. Are you kidding me?”

The thing one appreciates most about Starnino-if one appreciates him at all-is what I would characterize as an aggressive sanity. All good critics, all good thinkers, have a finely calibrated bullshit detector. Relatively few of them are as good as Starnino at explaining cogently why a particular statement or position is untenable or even nonsensical. The current avant-garde, that is to say, L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poetry, is the other great obstacle he sees to the writing of worthwhile verse in Canada, and his critique of this school’s presuppositions are among the most cogent and best written I’ve come across. In an essay review of Natural History by Christopher Dewdney he writes:

When reading Dewdney it’s therefore crucial to keep in mind the basic idea that props up his practice-the rejection of a discredited, obsolete poetics founded on the reliable, stable transcription of reality-because that signpost will be all that exists to reassure you that “Genital clusters, leaf groin of digestion” is to be taken seriously. Any sympathetic experience of Dewdney’s lingua obscura needs to be deeply implicated in its official explanation; it’s the only way to ignore what our senses are screaming at us-that the writing is gibberish-and become Dewdney’s ideal reader, one who enjoys his own bewilderment and takes active pleasure in the logic-evading spectacle-effect of lines like “All the observers translucent blue, stuffed saffron masses of hieroglyphics.”

While I admit that I’m predisposed by esthetic preference to enjoy this particular take-down, there’s something joyous, even therapeutic, about seeing good thinking on the page. Of course, that may not be the case if you like L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poetry. Then again, if you like L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poetry, you’ve probably already dismissed “good thinking” as oppressively linear.

There are plenty of occasions in the reviews for the kind of wicked fun American readers have come to associate with Logan. “Anne Carson writes weird poems,” Starnino says at the beginning of one, while another starts, “I suppose there’s nothing to be done any more about what is, for me, the regrettable fact that Susan Musgrave is still writing poems.” His ruthlessness extends far beyond one liners, though, as when he prints a fourteen line poem (no, not a sonnet) by E. D. Blodgett, then prints it backwards, line by line, to show how little difference it makes. “I did take small liberties with the line breaks,” he notes, but “Blodgett didn’t seem to be doing much with them any way.”

This kind of inspired impatience is memorable and fun to quote, and it’s not atypical of Starnino as a prose stylist. A style of writing is ultimately a style of thinking, though, and Starnino’s verbal jabs are not reflex actions but the result of careful consideration. Time and again, I’m struck by how reasonable yet exacting he is, as when he says, regarding A. M. Klein’s collection Rocking Chair: “Klein is a poet of undeniable gifts, but I do feel that many of the poems . . . remarkable as they are, could have been written by another poet.” After quoting one such poem, “Frigidaire,” in full, he notes “The inspired cleverness of the conceit is packaged in five quatrains, which clasp shut with well chosen rhymes. However, there need to be deeper claims to originality than aplomb, wit, and formal precision.”

This is tough stuff, especially from a poet-critic who scolds his compatriots for lacking just these qualities. Starnino isn’t setting the bar this high to prove how exacting he can be, but to demonstrate the way in which the making of a national canon ought to be done. Not everything is great; most of it isn’t even good; of the little that is good, some of it is better than the rest. In the same essay, he identifies what he sees as Klein’s characteristic strengths, quoting, again in full, the poem “Heirloom,” then opining, “I place ‘Heirloom’ . . .beside Robert Hayden’s ‘Winter Sundays’ as two of the most moving poems in English about fathers.” It’s a marvelous, fair, tough minded reading of a central Canadian poet, an example of the kind of genuine service that criticism at its best can provide.

With Irving Layton, Canadian poetry’s great wildman (and Leonard Cohen’s Yeshiva teacher!), he proceeds chronologically, quoting (again, in full) one of the earlier, more vigorous pieces, then turning to a poem from the period at which he asserts the poet’s decline had already begun. It’s sad to watch, but the point here is not to castigate Layton for succumbing to rock-star temptations, but to separate the wheat from the chaff. I admit that I was so turned off by some of the dreck I had read by Layton that I had more or less given up on him. I realize now I was too hasty.

As I write this, it occurs to me how much Starnino quotes from the poets he examines, and how often he quotes entire poems. The point is not to take up space but to do the poem justice, and to give the reader a fair chance at making up his or her own mind. It’s an approach I’m grateful for given the claims that he makes for a poet like Charles Bruce, now relatively unknown even to Canadians. I finished the piece feeling that I had discovered a significant, possibly even major poet-certainly one I’ll have to read further.

A Lover’s Quarrel is valuable, as criticism, as polemic, as a guide for young poets, and as an introduction to contemporary Canadian poetry. I can imagine Canadian avant-gardists, as well as their defenders of having conniption fits at the way Starnino describes the field. As he makes very clear from the beginning, though, this is not supposed to be an even–handed survey. To which I would add, if you don’t like it, write your own damn book. And make sure it’s as good, and as much fun, as this one.

* * *

In 2005, the year after A Lover’s Quarrel came out, Starnino published The New Canon: An Anthology of Canadian Poetry, which includes fifty poets born between 1955 and 1975. The title in itself is provocative, and it would be tempting to make jokes about “a shot across the bow,” if Starnino had not already scored so many direct hits with his criticism. Besides, as he explains in the anthology’s introduction, he has “no intention . . . of making watershed a body of work whose value is still very much up for dispute.” Rather, he is looking for “a new kind of canon . . . a canon not handed down from above, but offered up from within the fray.” Starnino could not be more up front about his intentions: “The New Canon is a justification of prejudice, an attempt to isolate a tendency in Canadian poetry and make a boast of it.” Unsurprisingly, the tendency Starnino is interested in here is the same one that distinguishes those poets he praises in A Lover’s Quarrel: an exuberant use of language and concern with craft. Although The New Canon is not a new formalist anthology per se, it’s encouraging to note how many of the poets here do employ meter and rhyme, and how many of those working in free verse know the difference between that difficult medium and lineated prose.

The introduction, aside from clarifying what the anthology is and isn’t, is primarily concerned with placing the anthology in historical context, which is to say, mapping out the poetic landscape in which it appears and defining the regnant type of poetry against which it is reacting. Dennis Lee’s 1985 anthology The New Canadian Poets was undiscerning and characterized by “comfort, complacency and soft-mindedness.” Many anthologies are. I can, without fear of contradiction, plead ignorance on that score. On the other hand, the narrative Starnino sketches here, of a lapse into free-verse dominance and avant-gardism will be (in some cases painfully) familiar to readers of American poetry. Canada may not be the 51st state, but it’s not exactly Mars, either.

One of the chief difficulties with an openly taste-based anthology (aside from whatever difficulties publisher’s reps may have getting it adopted for classes) is that it runs the risk of being more eccentric that individual. On the up side, you occasionally get a gem like D. J. Enright’s edition of the Oxford Book of Contemporary Verse. No, it’s not representative-you wouldn’t know from reading it that the Black Mountain poets and Beats had ever existed, and Gavin Ewart gets an implausible amount of space. But the work included is almost uniformly impressive, and it’s probably the only place you’re likely to run across Robert Conquest’s “Guided Missiles Experimental Range,” one of the great poems of the nuclear age.

It would be a miracle if Starnino’s anthology were as good as Enright’s, which included poetry from most of the English-speaking world over a period of four decades. Having said that, The New Canon contains some very good work indeed. One of the most exciting poets included is Bruce Taylor, whom I had previously managed to miss completely. The work included here deals with serious issues-nationhood, imagination, the passage of time-with an enviably light touch and impressive formal skill:

Our history-I’ll be honest-is at most

a theory which the facts do not confute.

Some people came from somewhere to a coast

as ragged as the salt line on a boot,

and pitched their cabins in the wilderness,

and did the things that somehow led to this. (“Social Studies”)

Well, to live for the moment

is best, but the moments, the little

jiffies, they are startled

to be here, like

the high-shouldered cuprous beetles

that live beneath patio stones,

if you’re curious, you lift one up

and let it run down your arm.

The other ones scoot for cover,

struggling down into the leaf mulch,

kicking frantically. (“Lovely”)

While there’s clearly an esthetic at work here, Starnino acknowledges and includes the best work of some of his ideological opposites, most notably the avant-gardist Christian Bök. In A Lover’s Quarrel, Starnino criticized Bök’s book-length prose (poem?) Eunoia, in which each of the five sections uses one vowel sound (“A cardshark, smart at canasta, has a scam: mark a pack, palm a jack”) as “pointless toil and empty productivity.” Here, however, he includes selections from the poet’s earlier work, including these lines from “Geodes”:

you climb across crenellations

in the form of these sentences:

the buried ruins of battlements

in a fortress sapped by miners-

a toppled panoply of turrets,

cupolas, minarets and steeples.

This is exciting work, reminiscent in its view of language of the Scottish poet W.S. Graham, and I don’t for a moment believe Starnino included it as a gesture toward mere “inclusiveness.”

There are other happy finds: Ken Babstock has several marvelous poems, including the virtuosic, postmodernist “Palindromic,” Diana Brebner, who succumbed to cancer in 2001, composed a quietly stunning, and unfortunately unexcerptable, poem about her illness, titled “Port.” Steven Heighton, who is also a fiction writer of note, has two poems here, “Constellations” and “The Machine Gunner,” which are quite extraordinary. Here’s the second half of “Constellations,” in which a little girl sticks phosphorescent stars to her pajamas, then goes out into the darkened hallway and calls down stairs to her father:

Her father came up. He heard her breathing
as he clomped upstairs preoccupied, wrenched
out of a rented film just now taking grip
on him and the child’s mother, his day-end
bottle of beer set carefully on the stairs,
marking the trail back down into that evening
adult world-he could hear her breathing (or
really, more an anxious, breathy giggle) but
couldn’t see her, then in the hallway stopped,
mind spinning to sort the apparition
of fireflies hovering ahead, till he sensed
his daughter and heard in her breathing
the pent, grave concentration of her pose,
mapped onto the star-chart of the darkness,
arms stretched high, head back, one foot slightly raised-
the Dancer, he supposed, and all his love
spun to centre with crushing force, to find her
momentarily fixed, as unchanging
as he and her mother must seem to her,
and the way the stars are; as if the stars are.

In his introduction, Starnino gives a long list of poets included either because they were born too early or too late, or because they came to his attention too late in the editing process. “There’s no question,” he says, that “this salon des refuses would itself comprise a fine and valuable anthology.” That’s encouraging news indeed, though I’m glad he drew the line somewhere. Actually, I would have preferred more poems by fewer poets, say twenty five, as opposed to the fifty included here. Such an approach might have allowed the individual styles and achievements of the poets to appear in sharper relief. Still, if Starnino ever does put out The New Canon II: The Power Struggle Continues, I’ll buy it.

* * *

Though Starnino doesn’t allude to it, the most glaring absence in The New Canon is that of . . . Carmine Starnino, poet. Which is just as well, I suppose. It can be a little awkward when the editor of an anthology includes his or her own poems. Sometimes it’s unavoidable: Derek Mahon could not plausibly have excluded himself from the Penguin Book of Contemporary Irish Poetry, which he co-edited with Peter Fallon. Given how young he is, and given the scope of his literary pronouncements-not to mention denouncements-Starnino was wise to leave himself out. It’s one thing to supply your critics with ammunition, another to stroll leisurely toward their trenches.

The first of Starnino’s three collections of poetry, The New World, appeared in 1997. The majority of the poems are concerned with memories of family trials, and a number of these-a younger brother whose unnamed condition retards his growth, the death of an aunt and her husband’s grief-are revisited, each time from a different angle. In addition to poems on family, there are a number of fine ones on religious subjects and religious works of art, and several translations from the Italian. The movement of the poems is typically toward a truth either grander or grimmer than might at first appear. In “Shopping for Turtles,” he remembers a moment with his developmentally challenged brother:

It doesn’t look happy, he says,

and I smile, amused by the idea

that it’s no physical handicap (an unyielding

stiffness in the limbs) that explains

the turtle’s momentum, but rather

a profound despair; the primitive brain

coordinating movement to accommodate

some inexplicable sadness, as if,

during the turtle’s slow progress along

the aquarium floor, it was gathering inside itself

a heaviness, a grief drawn from deep

within the earth-its hard-shelled muscle

hauling the impossible weight of the world

I take that last line, in part, as a glancing allusion to Hindu cosmology, with its image of the earth supported by elephants who in turn stand on the back of a tortoise. And much could be written on the poet’s use of the adjective “impossible.”

Having read Starnino’s criticism, I think I expected the poetry to be rich, heavy stuff, reminiscent of Hopkins or Hart Crane, as verbal exuberance is one of the qualities he most prizes. What’s striking, then, is how restrained most of the poems in The New World are. The plain style is so ubiquitous in English that it seems silly to speak of a poet as courageous for choosing it, but there is something nervy about Starnino’s trust in his subject matter, and in its metaphorical potential. I mentioned the extent to which Starnino quotes long passages or entire poems in his reviews; we see the corollary of this in the construction of his own poems, which are very much wholes, as opposed to collections of flashy lines. “The True Story of My Father” has a cumulative power that only comes across in a longish quotation:

There were days when I’d catch him

alone at the kitchen table, lost

inside some regret, his head

cradled in his hands like the part

of his life that was over, that had

stopped some time ago. A cigarette

smoldered beside him, its smoke

rising from the ashtray like a long

held breath, slowly released.

I would like to say that my mother

went to him then, leaned over to

whisper his name in his ear,

and he jerked up, a little startled,

staring around the room in unrecognition,

having been called back too quickly

into his life and looked up

at my mother who smiled, running

her long fingers through his hair,

slipping them into its dark glistening.

I would like this, finally, to be

a story of love. But the truth is

my father was an unhappy man,

his head was heavy, and sometimes

he rested it in his hands.

This sort of thing is so often done poorly-you so often see poets who assume any statement made in hushed tones is a profound one-that there’s something exhilarating about seeing it done well. “Technique is the test of sincerity,” as Pound famously said, and everything about a poem like this-its arc, its pacing, the subtle but spot-on enjambments-testifies to the truth of that statement.

His second collection, Credo, represents a major advance. The same subjects-family, immigration both literal and metaphorical, the powers of language-are taken up here, but with a degree of brashness that the earlier book lacked. There’s more gusto, here, more evident joy in the sound of words, more willingness to risk the odd or arcane word, and more conviction that he can pull it off. While the poems from his first volume were very good, there are a number here that will, I’m convinced, become standard anthology pieces. Take “The Immigrants,” for example:

The New World, like the afterlife, was the Old World,

but heightened: oak-shaded gardens, windows open

over endless breeze-fragrant fields. Many believed this

and spent their lives learning to weight their hearts

against a feather, and be found true. When they died,

they died interred in their homes. A token of wood

to build a boat; cherries, some fruit for their journey.

That first line and a quarter, especially, lodged in my memory the first time I read it, and it’s not going anywhere any time soon. And Coleridge’s objection against double epithets notwithstanding, I love “breeze-fragrant,” the way it arrests the reader just long enough to experience the thing in question afresh. Notice, too, the way that the enjambment “A token of wood / to build a boat” conjures all those countless pieces of “the true cross” for an instant before associating them, movingly, with the funerary images and artifacts of who knows how many cultures, and with Lawrence’s “The Ship of Death.”

The poet’s new confidence and daring are most on display in “Cornage,” the sequence that closes the book. It’s a meditation on lots of things, not least among them poetry, a meditation prompted and sustained by old, now obscure words. We complain-or I complain, in any case-about poetry about poetry, but that’s only when it’s joyless or portentous, or both.

V

Words I’d like to get into a poem: eagle stone, ezel,

cornage, buckram, scrynne, waes hail, sillyebubbe.

Think medieval, think Old English, think so archaic,

so orphaned, so disregarded, so unused they seem

each to disappear into the slow, self-searing glimmer

of their vanishing, like the faint phosphorescence

emitted by decaying matter. I want to smuggle in

this fox-fire, angle the small dole of pilfered light

to a line’s wick, then set the conjured illumination

on my desk like an oil lamp. Doeges-eage, horshwoil,

necke-verse. Some nights I feel like St. Fillian who,

it’s said, read by the glow given off by his left hand.

Saints are mentioned often in the book, which already in its title declares that it shares its predecessor’s interest in belief and the objects of belief. I don’t know that I would call Starnino a religious poet, as that implies for me faith on the poet’s part, always a tricky thing for a critic to gauge. I think it’s safe to say, though, that he is a Catholic poet, one for whom the doctrine and lore of the Church provide essential subject matter and an imaginative framework.

One reservation: Starnino is damn clever, and he knows it, and like most clever poets with some sense of audience, he tries to wear his cleverness, and his learning, lightly. More often than not, he pulls it off, as in “Cornage.” Now and again, though, this lends a coy, aw, shucks feeling to the verse. If this stems from a desire to ingratiate himself with his readers (not in itself an ignoble goal) then perhaps Starnino the poet still has something to learn from his alter-ego, the take-no-prisoners critic. Readers who are drawn to these poems can handle (and here, I realize, I’m flattering myself) a bit less handholding than they’re sometimes given.

There is substantial continuity between Credo and Starnino’s most recent book, With English Subtitles, and I have the impression not so much of a change in terms of style but of a shift in emphasis away from blood-ties and the immigrant experience-though these themes aren’t absent-to romantic relationships and, for the first time in the poet’s work, a specifically Canadian landscape:

I send you the monkshood, damped

with blue, and red lichen clamped upon stone.

I send you the rain, knocked askew

by wind, and geum seeds adhesively

browsing the bottom of my jeans. I send you the fern’s

billet-doux fronds and the sagebrush’s

scent, with its off-in-all-directions hurrying.

I send you the goldenrod, its fistful

of hay-coloured trusses tucked fast against

the steep slope. I send you the clouds

far-roofing my day. I send you the black bear, and all

the claw-straked bark he leaves for me.

(“Yukon Postcards,” II)

Of course, the landscape here, as so often in Derek Walcott’s work, is as much linguistic as it is physical. As in “Cornage,” the language calls attention to itself, and does so with relish. Poetry is not explicitly the focus here, though communication certainly is. The point is not to find the striking word so much as it is to find the accurate word, the one that by its rightness will communicate the lover’s experience to the beloved. And that rightness is as much sonic as it is syntactic-read the above lines aloud and you’ll hear what I mean.

The coyness I complained of in Credo, isn’t entirely absent here, but it is under better control, and, in the numerous love poems in the book, it adds a flirtatious touch that works nicely. There are a few poems here, like “The Charity Auction” and “Song of the House Husband” that seem written more out of habit than necessity-given his output, I imagine Starnino is something of a graphomaniac-but they’re decidedly in the minority. And even those poems aren’t bad, just not as good as their fellows.

My favorite poems in With English Subtitles-“Navigation,” “Money”-practically defy excerption, and are too long to quote here in full. (“Money” was chosen by Heather McHugh for inclusion in the 2007 edition of Best American Poetry, a welcome sign that Starnino’s reputation is spreading beyond his native land.) “This is Your Mission,” is a handier size:

Clouds, thunder and lightning. The flow of water

and blowing leaves. These are the signs by which you’re

to take position and set your watch. The ganglia

of fibre-optic moss are now rigged for transmissions.

Reports are to be made daily. A warning: errors in encryption

will seep and spread; observe, at the watermark,

how the stones are stained with them. Maintain

a working wariness. Sources tell us that the mist,

with its ploy of pulling against all five senses, is a trap.

(Ox eyes are runic pranks and are to be ignored.)

As for the redwood’s bark, keep the frequency

of its hue open, so as to catch out enemy reports.

Changes in location for our weekly pre-arranged drops

will be greened to the underside of poplar leaves.

If captured, insist you’re just admiring the view.

This poem is about, and could be about, any number of things, but one thing it surely touches on is the relationship among poet, reader, and world. The poem creates a secret society operating in a world that is our own, yet at the same foreign, possibly enemy territory. Unlike the avant-garde and L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poetries that Starnino biopsies in his criticism, however, the benefits of inclusion in this society go beyond a warm feeling of belonging, with its accompanying disdain for those not in the know. If, as he claims in the introduction to The New Canon, the devices of the avant-garde amount to “the poetic equivalent of a secret handshake,” a poem like “This is Your Mission” is something far deeper, an initiation into a genuine mystery, albeit one we’ve inhabited all along.

In concluding, I’ll risk the kind of statement that would have seemed foolhardy at the outset: Carmine Starnino is one of the most important writers and readers of poetry in the contemporary English-speaking world. America has no one like him. It may be, for reasons of culture, history, and perhaps even geography, that only Canada could have produced him at this juncture. In any case, his talent, idealism, and ambition make his work exciting, and I would say necessary, reading. Unless, that is, we want to be hopelessly provincial.[/private]

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- who has written 8 posts on Contemporary Poetry Review.

Bill Coyle's poems have appeared widely in magazines and anthologies, including the Hudson Review, The New Criterion, the New Republic, and Poetry. He is a translator from the Swedish, and his versions of the poet Håkan Sandell have appeared in PN Review and Ars Interpres and are forthcoming in the anthology The Other Side of Landscape. Mr. Coyle teaches in the English Department at Salem State College in Salem, Massachusetts. He lives in Somerville, Massachusetts.

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