Congratulations to Angela Rawlings, Jon Paul Fiorentino, and Sina Queyras for having their books reviewed
(pdf) in this weekend's Globe and Mail
. It's nice to see friends' books (in Jon's and Angela's cases—I've never met Sina) noted in the national media. At the risk of appearing ungrateful, however, I'd like to point out that if one ever needed evidence that the so-called avant-garde is marginalized in this country, one need look no further than l'Abbe's review, which, while certainly generous in intent, is stunning in its application of unexamined assumptions.
I think it's probable that the ability to offer assessments without bothering to justify key valuative terms is a sign that one is in a position of relative dominance, because for someone in such a position, one's values are self-evident: they are the norm. l'Abbe claims that Fiorentino's style has "moved further and further to the abstract end of the spectrum" and that "heightened abstraction would be fine if abstraction were left to move us as it does best: through impression, mood and sensual effect." Well, first, what does l'Abbe mean by abstraction? I can think of convincing arguments that, if we take ink on the page as concrete (vis concrete poetry), image is of the more abstract properties of poetry, since it is something mostly mental that readers map onto the work. Is this what l'Abbe means? Likely not, since, as she later claims approvingly, for Queyras "[w]ater waves are an image entry point to the waves of imagination and memory to which the poet is about to surrender. Queyras builds poems by layering images one atop the other." And who says that abstraction moves us "best" "through impression, mood and sensual effect"? Is moving the reader in this manner the object of all poetry? In any case, I would think that an explanation of how
Fiorentino's work is abstract (assuming it is) is key to understanding it.
l'Abbe talks about Rawlings's "experimental placement of ... text in blank space." What does "experimental" mean in this sentence? Critics in various camps have argued that experimentalism is a hallmark of good poetry, that writing poetry is about discovering something new, and that therefore an otherwise traditional sonnet might be said to be experimental. John Cage, if I'm not mistaken, argued that the term "experimental" should be reserved for work that results from a process the outcome of which is unknown when it's undertaken. Is either of these what l'Abbe means? I suppose it's more likely that she means something like "not usual" (in other words, not what occurs in most of the poetry she reads) or maybe even "avant-garde." I think what she actually means is "not left-justified" and therefore "Other."
But here's the kicker: for l'Abbe, Queyras's Lemon Hound
, the work on which she bestows her most comfortable praise, "shows the most restraint, achieving a lovely balance between lyricism and experimentalism." Wait a second, I thought this review was about experimental (that is, avant-garde) poetry. Are we to assume then that the best way for experimental poetry to be good (or to be lovely) is to moderate itself and be more like non-experimental poetry? Isn't this what l'Abbe is coming awfully close to saying? Please correct me if I'm wrong.
I do actually think that l'Abbe means well by her review. I've seen her read during the open mic at Lexiconjury, which is relatively unusual for someone not identified as avant-garde and which I take as a gesture of good will. In writing this review, l'Abbe is using her cultural capital to bring attention to some work that might otherwise escape notice and acting as a kind of liaison between various sometimes exclusive poetry communities, and so she should be commended. I'm just not sure that, beyond garnering some barefaced exposure for the books she's considering, she's done the poetry itself any real favours by simply reading it through her own poetic and judging it.
In other news, I don't mean to whine about the marginalization of the avant-garde. I mean, who cares ultimately, because operating on the margins has its advantages. And what's with this throwing of the term "avant-garde" around anyway? I think I prefer something like "poetry that takes itself, its precursors, and the current times seriously." That's pretty messy, but you get the idea. Fit genuine humour in there as well. All that other stuff is for historians.