You Are Here by James Pollock
From critic and poet James Pollock comes You Are Here, an incisive collection of essays that explore the newer, more cosmopolitan and technically sophisticated generation of Canadian poets.
Northrop Frye wrote that for Canadian poets the question of identity isn’t so much ‘Who am I?’ as ‘Where is here?’ In his ground-breaking book, James Pollock gives his answer: that where we are as a literary culture has a great deal to do with our relationship to elsewhere. For far too long, Canadians have refused to read our poetry in the larger international context of poetry as an art, leaving our poets isolated and ignored. Pollock sets out to situate our verse on the map of world poetry – a map which, like one of those incomplete globes from the sixteenth century, still leaves Canada largely uncharted.
Acutely intelligent and unflinchingly honest in its judgements, You Are Here is an eye-opening guide to the new world of Canadian poetry, sensitively exploring the work of such poets as Anne Carson, Daryl Hine, Jeffery Donaldson, Karen Solie and Eric Ormsby. The collection ends with a witty treatise on good criticism, and a passionate and learned reconsideration of poetic values, making You Are Here an essential companion for students and lovers of Canadian poetry everywhere.
2013—ForeWord Magazine Book of the Year,
Table of contents
Daryl Hine Recollected
Cursing with a Broken Art (Dennis Lee)
Anne Carson and the Sublime
The Magic of Jeffery Donaldson
What to Pack (Marlene Cookshaw)
Karen Solie’s Triple Vision
Sympathetic Magic and the Chameleon Poet (Eric Ormsby)
PART I I
Critical Mess (W. J. Keith)
Book of Revelations (The New Canon)
Still Out in Left Field (Open Field)
Choosing the Best Canadian Poetry (Best Canadian Poetry 2008)
Reply to Fraser Sutherland
Long Time Coming (Modern Canadian Poets)
PART I I I
The Art of Poetry
You Are Here
Essays argue for good Canadian poetry, rather than poetry written for ideological or nationalist purposes.
"The virtues of good critical reading," writes James Pollock, are "openness, attentiveness, patience, critical intelligence--and love." You Are Here, a collection of essays on the contemporary Canadian landscape, aptly embodies these virtues and displays Pollock as an honest and heartfelt contributor to the national poetry’s topographical record.
Appearing in three parts, You Are Here draws together several of Pollock’s previously published critical essays and new writing designed to consider "poetic value" in resistance against the "claustrophobic . . . provincial isolation" of his experiences with Canadian literary poetics. He attacks and deconstructs poetry he deems to be written more for ideological or expressivist/experimental purposes (the work of Fred Wah and bpNichol, for example) and illustrates the merits of lesser-known Canadian poets who might more satisfactorily represent the nation’s literature on the global canonical map. Jeffery Donaldson, to whose poem the book’s title refers, is a favorite.
Working from a tradition firmly established by institutional education in English, and writing from an authority granted by the hierarchies of canonical poetics founded in the aesthetics deemed worthy by generations of students and writers of poetry in the Western tradition (and thus, performing a very Canadian feat of charting territory that is both nationalist and in a constant colonial process), the author earnestly adopts the position of the "honest judge" he desires both for writers and readers of poetry.
Arguing repeatedly and with a great deal of passion for such honesty and the production of evidence for all claims made about the quality of other poets’ work, Pollock has also evaluated several of the most recently published collections of poetry meant to establish a national canon. In so doing, Pollock occasionally falls into the trap set by his critical predecessors in spending a significant amount of ink on the decisions made by editors of these anthologies. Those critics, he argues, are not in the business of artful writing but are, as W.J. Keith calls them, "middlemen."
Still, the author remains true to his values, lovingly approaching the efforts of fellow critics to produce useful guides to good poetry produced by writers who are Canadians, and not necessarily writing that was good for Canadians or Canada as a national construct. Pollock carefully and thoughtfully provides evidence to support each evaluation.
The most interesting and artful section of this work is the third, in which Pollock engages with himself directly--publishing a "self-interview" designed to answer any future criticism of his work. Regarding the relationship between poetry as art, the critical environs of its creation, and the terrain its readership must traverse, the author "wants a healthy number of strong, highly persuasive interpretations and judgments," with which the aesthete may symbiotically exist.
You Are Here embodies the modern-day tour book, combining updated maps and personal insight, to provide those interested in the art of poetry new reason to visit Canada.
—Patty Comeau, ForeWord Reviews
‘[I]ts both a relief and a delight to encounter James Pollock’s recent You Are Here: Essays on the Art of Poetry in Canada, which puts the evaluative approach front and centre. Ultimately, it’s the critic’s job to sift and weigh, to consider, and to judge. Pollock takes great care in this sequence from reading to writing, and the force of his conclusions, always nuanced, are made plain, and backed by a hefty portion of core citation.’
‘Pollock’s book – though it certainly espouses its aesthetic ideals with a firmness that will rankle with both those whose poetics stand at odds with them and, more moderately, those less willing to make hard-and-fast evaluative judgments – provides both a series of unusually nuanced and intelligent takes on individual poets and volumes and, taken as a whole, an erudite accounting of Canadian poetic identity in the late twentieth- and early twenty-first centuries ... I agree with most of Pollock’s guiding premises [because of] ... his extraordinary rigour, the meticulousness with which, in his finest critical moments, he substantiates his strong claims with argumentation so textured and intelligent that one feels dared to disagree.’
—Stewart Cole, The Urge: Reviewing New Canadian Poetry
‘The poetry celebrated in the pages of You Are Here includes the work of Jeff[er]y Donaldson, Karen Solie, Anne Carson, Daryl Hine, Eric Ormsby and Marlene [Cookshaw], each of whom receive illuminating and often brilliant close readings.’
—Stephen Osborne, Geist
‘Pollock is an engaged and well-informed reader who can assess work in a range of poetics, and it succeeds in establishing a consistent approach to criticism and to poetry.’
—Chris Jennings, Arc Poetry Magazine
‘[Pollock] seeks in poetry "a pair of rare and beautiful things: technical mastery, and an authoritative engagement with international poetic traditions" that will be answered by "a clear-eyed, energetic and discerning critical response." He satisfyingly practices what he preaches: manifestly well-read in "the whole history of Western poetry," Pollock writes about poems and their techniques and influences with a patient, thorough adroitness that makes close reading look easy.’
—Laura Cameron, Canadian Literature
‘The poetry celebrated in the pages of You Are Here includes the work of Jeffrey Donaldson, Karen Solie, Anne Carson, Daryl Hine, Eric Ormsby and Marlene Cruikshank, each of whom receive illuminating and often brilliant close readings. Pollock situates these poets within the world of poetry rather than merely the world of Canada; the result inspires readers to think along similar lines.’
—Stephen Osborne, Geist
‘The readings Pollock offers are thoughtful, knowledgeable, and precise. He is truly an excellent close reader of poems, his technical vocabulary is superb, and his command of the tradition enables him to tease out allusions and echoes of other works that are likely to be missed by the more casual reader. . . . There is no doubt that You Are Here will be appreciated by many, especially practicing poets and aspiring critics.’
—Robert Stacey, University of Toronto Quarterly
‘You don’t have to be as delighted as I am by James Pollock’s advocacy of Daryl Hine and Anne Carson as two of the most accomplished of living Canadian poets to recognize You Are Here as the most compelling enquiry into the current state of poetry in this country since Northrop Frye’s omnibus surveys in the 1950s. This is a book I’ve been waiting to read for most of my adult life.’
—T.F. Rigelhof, author of Hooked on Canadian Books: The Good, the Better, and the Best Canadian Novels since 1984
‘You Are Here: Essays on the Art of Poetry in Canada is an elegant salvo in the ongoing guerilla war against Canada’s complacent (and sometimes incompetent) poetry culture. Erudite but always accessible, Pollock is a critic who belongs to the best kind of old school: the sort whose members write clearly, can teach you a thing or two and have the nerve to have an opinion.’
—Jason Guriel, author of Pure Product
Introduction or preface
Living as I did in Toronto in the late eighties and early nineties I rode my share of public transportation, and I often found myself perusing the glowing, back-lit advertising signs in subway stations and bus stop shelters. I vividly recall a campaign for a cough medicine called Buckley’s Mixture. Apparently this witch’s brew contained no alcohol, sugar, or pleasant flavour of any kind. The ads varied – one invited readers to ‘Open wide and say ‘‘@#$%&*!’" – but all ended with the same slogan: ‘It Tastes Awful. And It Works.’ What a brilliant intuition, I thought. To sell medicine in puritan Toronto, you emphasize how bad it tastes. The campaign was a spectacular success.
Unfortunately, the same attitude prevailed in poetry.
In my undergraduate literature classes at York University I spent years on end luxuriating in Homer, Chaucer, Shakespeare, Milton, Whitman. As a neophyte writer, however, I was also eager to discover what my compatriots were writing, and so, during my almost daily explorations of the campus bookstore, I would spend some time digging into anthologies of Canadian poetry and fiction, and the new issues of Canadian literary journals, and whenever a visiting writer came to the campus to give a reading, I was there. The hype was loud. Margaret Atwood was a world-famous writer; bpNichol was the greatest living member of the Canadian avant-garde. But as I read around, searching for a great Canadian poet, as I sat in the audience listening to Atwood’s mildly amusing monotone wit, and Nichol’s feral grunting and snarling and endless puns, it began to dawn on me that something was terribly wrong. These poets – not just Atwood and Nichol, but the names I stumbled across in anthologies and journals – were not very good. A lot of them were astonishingly bad. And yet they were being published and celebrated everywhere. I had to face the truth: their poetry tasted awful. But I’d be damned if it didn’t seem, at least as far as their reputations were concerned, to work.
Two main kinds of poetry were being published in Canada at the time. One was a rough, dull, plainspoken lyric poetry in casual free-verse, either autobiographical or mythically didactic: Atwood, Al Purdy, John Newlove, George Bowering. The other was a loopy avant-garde sort of composition whose main qualities were tedium and incoherence: Nichol, Fred Wah, Steve McCaffery. This second group differed from the plain-spoken free-verse poets in part by surrounding their writing with a lot of pretentious theoretical bombast, and they seemed to go on forever repeating the same experiments that avant-gardes in Europe and the United States had been conducting for decades, without very interesting results.
On some days it made me depressed, on others furious. During my excursions downtown, I would often see a miserable-looking guy standing outside Sam the Record Man on Yonge Street. He was always holding a small stack of stapled chapbooks with one propped up on top so you could read the cover, announcing its title in big black handwritten letters: Shit. I never saw anyone slow down to take a closer look. It was the mirror image of the avant-garde literary magazine I’d encountered in the university library from a generation earlier, with its stupefying anagrammatic title, Tish. There you have it, I said to myself: the two main pipelines in the sewer of Canadian poetry.
It was partly an illusion, fortunately. There were some gifted Canadian poets out there, including my teachers at York, Don Coles and Elisabeth Harvor, but most of them were forgotten or ignored. I’d never heard of Daryl Hine, for example, or Richard Outram, or Robert Allen. I felt claustrophobic. Here I was living in the largest city in Canada, reading some of the greatest literature of the Western world, and yet the provincial isolation of my own literary neighbourhood was overwhelming. If I were going to be a writer, I felt, I would have to leave.
So I moved to the United States for graduate school – this was twenty years ago now – started publishing poems and reviews, got married, and took a job as a professor in the American Midwest. But I never forgot my Toronto claustrophobia. And over time, in thinking about the art and theory of poetry, I began at last to understand the causes of that literary malaise.
One crucial factor was the xenophobic literary nationalism of the time, which, while mitigated somewhat, still runs deep in certain quarters even now. That attitude is the target of one of the pieces in this book. But there was, and is, a deeper problem: a lack of clarity in our thinking about poetry. The final essay here is an effort to address this problem head-on by considering the question of poetic value.
It’s true that much has changed for the better in Canadian poetry in the last twenty years. A healthy crop of excellent new poets has emerged in Canada. And a few good new poet-critics have begun not only to respond to these poets, but also to undertake a desperately needed revaluation of the past. This has resulted, for example, in Evan Jones and Todd Swift’s extraordinary revisionary anthology, Modern Canadian Poets, a review of which I have included here. As a devoted reader of Canadian poetry, I am encouraged by these developments. But a great deal still remains to be done.
This book – a collection of reviews and essays written over the last seven years – springs from two desires. First, to reconnect Canadian poetry to the larger context of poetry as an art. Second, to situate some of our poets on the map of world poetry – a map which, like one of those incomplete globes from the sixteenth century, still leaves this country largely uncharted.
My title – taken from a poem by Jeffery Donaldson called ‘Bearings’ – alludes to Northrop Frye’s remark that, for Canadian poets, the question of identity isn’t so much ‘Who am I?’ as ‘Where is here?’ My conviction is that where we are as a literary culture has a great deal to do with our relationship to elsewhere. If this book helps readers begin to answer that question about Canadian poetry and the particular Canadian poets I discuss herein, it will have done its job.
James Pollock is the author of Sailing to Babylon (Able Muse Press, 2012), which was a finalist for the Griffin Poetry Prize and the Governor General’s Literary Award in Poetry, runner-up for the Posner Poetry Book Award, and winner of an Outstanding Achievement Award in Poetry from the Wisconsin Library Association; and You Are Here: Essays on the Art of Poetry in Canada (The Porcupine’s Quill, 2012), a finalist for the ForeWord Reviews Book of the Year Award for a collection of essays. He grew up in Woodstock, Ontario, studied English literature and creative writing at York University in Toronto, and earned a Ph.D. in literature and creative writing from the University of Houston. He is a professor at Loras College in Dubuque, Iowa, where he teaches poetry writing, Canadian culture, and modern and contemporary American poetry. He lives with his wife and son in Madison, Wisconsin.