I lived in three states -- Ohio, Indiana, New York – before moving to Houston three and a half years ago, always within 150 miles of the Familiar Stranger to our north, Canada. I confess, correspondingly, to a vast ignorance about Canadian literature. Before the 20th century – nothing. Nor have I read the big guns known to many Americans, such as Robertson Davies and Mordecai Richler. Unfortunately, some of the Canadian writers whose work I do know – Margaret Atwood, Michael Ondaatje, Anne Carson – are nearly as awful as their American counterparts – say, Joyce Carol Oates, David Foster Wallace, Susan Sontag. So, what’s a sympathetic American reader to do? Lend an ear to David Solway, a poet and author of some of the best critical invective since The Dunciad.
My ignorance puts me at some disadvantage reading Director’s Cut (2003), but it’s a pleasure watching Solway in his self-described role of “hometown Savonarola committing most of contemporary Canadian literature to the bonfire of the inanities.” Be assured that almost every observation he makes about his literary confreres holds true for the American scene. Think America while reading this from Solway’s preface:
“I am convinced that almost all of the poetry (and much of the fiction) being written in Canada these days – with only a couple of redeeming exceptions that stand out like crop circles in a featureless plain – is turgid, spurious and pedestrian stuff, the lame result of two highly questionable developments: (1) the proliferation of creative writing departments, those factories of undeviating blandness, in universities throughout the country, and (2) a largely subsidized literature industry, abetted by a press of cousinly critics and reviewers, intended to construct a patchwork national psyche, create a sense of ideological cohesion and glorify the tribe.”
Granted, literary accomplishment, like any artistic accomplishment, is rare and precious in any nation, in any era. But Solway exposes not merely the worthlessness of, for instance, Anne Carson’s unreadable work, but the egotism, bad taste and self-interest that drive her putative admirers – what Solway calls “the mediocrity industry”:
“Still, if the work is so obstreperously bad, how account for the reputation? This is mainly spread and consolidated by editors, critics and reviewers whose bookish expertise – regardless of whatever previous accomplishments they may licitly boast – can be described in far too many instances as a kind of higher Sesame Street word-and-number recognition faculty. They tend to sound like sciolistic Counts and half-educated Big Birds, reacting with manic delight to the lexical doits and clippings and allusions that Carson-type poetry provides for their enlightenment.”
Yes, Solway is reliably funny and dismissive of received opinion, especially of the fashionably “transgressive” sort. I’m reminded of Eric Ormsby’s recent reference, in a review of Andrea Zanzotto’s work, to “that gruesome being, an `experimental poet.’”
My fellow Americans, do not feel neglected. Some of Solway’s fiercest praise is reserved for the aforementioned Ormsby, a Montreal poet born in Georgia, and he likewise, in passing, lauds J.V. Cunningham, Wallace Stevens and Richard Wilbur. Also, he pays us the compliment of slaying some of the ugliest of our homegrown dragons, including Gertrude Stein, Sharon Olds, Rita Dove, Toni Morrison and John Ashbery. I’m especially grateful for his dismissal of Ashbery, who produces nihilistic nonsense at a prodigious rate. As best I can recall, Ashbery has not written a single line of pleasurable, interesting or memorable verse. Of an Ashbery poem ostensibly about sex, Solway asks, “but where is the love of language, the stroking and caressing of the flesh made word, the erotic attention to prosodic detail, the connection with the body of previous poetry, and the happy consummation of meaning in the union of poet and reader [?]”
Solway quotes with approval the American poet Timothy Murphy, who described Ashbery and A.R. Ammons as “frauds who hold their audiences in contempt.” Director’s Cut is the funniest and most common-sensical guide to contemporary poetry I know.