You Must Work Harder To Write Poetry of Excellence
Reviewed by Darren Bifford
The title of Donato Mancini’s You Must Work Harder to Write Poetry of Excellence is an ironic misnomer, as Mancini’s concern is less with poetry than it is with the state of poetry reviewing in this country. Poetry reviews in Canada, according to Mancini, have especially lacked in their treatment of postmodern poetry. The guilty parties are identified early on as “conservative critics” shackled by an ideologically crippled critical paradigm. With their dimmed and inflexible vision, these critics see merely what they want to see in all that they might profitably see, if only they worked harder. And it is not merely poetics which are at stake, but also politics. Mancini agrees with what seems to be a truism among some postmodern writers, and assumes that a poet’s (or critic’s) commitment to literary tradition and so-called traditional forms entails that he or she is also, even if tacitly, sympathetic to conservative and generally right-wing political agendas, while postmodern commitments, whatever they are, are allied with leftist ones. Carmine Starnino is thus declared an “arch-conservative” (though it’s unclear whether that title denotes solely an interest in formal elements of English prosody or an interest in lower taxation, or both), and George Woodcock’s “nostalgic reviewing […] writes its way willy-nilly into neo-conservative values, however “liberal” or “left” or even anarchist its departure points.” The dominant Canadian poetry review, then, tells us more about its author’s various poetic and political assumptions than it does about the poems it criticizes. These assumptions turn out to be embedded in a series of tropes—the common reader, accessibility, craft, tradition, meaning, the human heart—which lurk like a sickly mold beneath the surface of our typical reviews.
The stakes are high. Mancini suggests that there is a kind of war-of-poetry going on, with “innovative” or “progressive” Canadian poetry generally on the defensive.  Mancini asks us to
consider, for instance, David Solway’s ruminations about the reading habits of
his neighbor. Solway writes that he’s unable to “frankly conceive of any
intelligent middlebrow reader spending an evening with Anne Carson or Jorie
Graham in a way that my neighbor, a retired engineer, reads Houseman and Hardy
and listens to recordings of Dylan Thomas”. No doubt the truth of David
Solway’s thought experiment will be obvious to people who generally resemble persons
named David Solway; and it is, Mancini rightly notes, an irritatingly dumb
generalization. (For instance, my own neighbor, an unemployed alcoholic, spends
his evenings reading Jack Gilbert.) But how about Mancini’s response? “The poets [Solway] rejects are US
and Canadian women. The model poets are white, gentile, UK men: A.E. Housman,
who writes eroticized war propaganda; Thomas Hardy, who writes misogynist
social criticism; and Dylan Thomas, the hard drinking, womanizing,
troublemaking, bad boy romantic”. I’ll grant Mancini his suspicion of the
gender and cultural disparity but his reductive dismissal of Housman and Hardy
and Thomas is just as weirdly righteous as Solway’s.
The most useful and entertaining parts of Mancini’s book—and, as it happens, the most problematic—consist in critical analyses of those above mentioned tropes, which are often clustered together throughout the course of a single review. Since Mancini’s book is about the rhetoric of dominant Canadian poetry reviewers, it’s really important that the examples he offers of those dominant reviews are both sufficient in sample size and typical. If not, then Mancini’s argument loses a great deal of force, and what he attacks merely a series of straw-men (and women). So what then to make of Mancini’s method? He begins by citing a more or less brief example of a what he offers up as a typical poetry review that errs in exactly the way he proposes it to err. For instance, Solway’s retired engineer neighbor, busy reading his Hardy, is evidence on Mancini’s analysis of that Common Reader who often emerges in poetry reviews. This is the reader for and to whom the reviewer often speaks, either to recommend a book of poetry or to warn against its consumption. The reviewer, in this capacity, assumes him or herself a member of “the common sense police” who defend not poets and critics but “also their readers who are members of that hard to please but demanding clique: the general reading public. Voracious but impatient, the general reader reads to understand and to be pleased.” The assumption of this trope thereby tacitly allows the reviewer to reject poetry that doesn’t fit into his preconceived mould. The reviewer’s “discourse,” says Mancini, “[is thus a] sign of [his or her] difficulty lining up the dominant ideolect [i.e., the way a class of critics usually talk] with the aesthetic imperatives governing the actual book under review.”
Mancini’s survey of the ambivalent reception of his own poetry book, Ligatures, is characteristic of his method. The reviewer writes that it is his “pleasure to report that Mancini mostly […] com[es] off usually like a bright Martian inquiring into this thing humans call language, and only occasionally like a grouchy Marxist who has read 20,000 books and got tenure the year Foucault died.” Randall Jarrell this is not; but no matter. With citations from the questionable review now on his operating table, Mancini attempts to show that this review is not in fact revelatory of any feature of his book but again only of its reviewer’s dominant ideolect, which in this case relies on the trope of accessibility. Whether Mancini’s final analysis is convincing is another matter. Mancini sees in his reviewer assumptions that “Erudition is ‘degenerate;’ subhuman […] Because very little in my book signifies either writerly toil or Accessibility, to protect Ligatures from hostile criticism Neff turns me into phantasmic Human shield for myself […] The Common Reader is advised against braving this book.” Indeed, says Mancini, the reviewer has in fact turned his book into “a rarified piece of work, a cunning and esoteric thing, built for connoisseurs,” with the implication that those “who could like my book” are in some way “arch-perverts.”(To be fair I should say it takes a reference to Zizek to get him to that unusual final statement.)
Mancini applies the same method to reveal (or not) other tropes. In almost all cases he seems to equivocate his discovery and analysis of the aesthetic values embedded in a reviewer’s tropes with their refutation. On the one hand, it’s worth asking, as Mancini does, what exactly a reviewer might unwillingly imply by the following sorts of assertions, (all made by different reviewers about different poetry books): it is a “bland book [that] isn’t meant to make you feel or know anything”; she is “a better and more human poet now’”; “Failing to appreciate the subtle depth and force of blert may require you to consult your mouth or heart for a pulse or feeling.” It’s easy for me to sympathize with the very general claim that one of the ways poetry reviews must work harder is to avoid the lazy kinds of hypostatization that Mancini discusses. The common reader is indeed no reader at all, and Mancini is probably right to say that such invocations often function as empty receptacles for the reviewer’s own ideological predilections. He is probably right to say that the specter of accessibility or humanity or craft or tradition can simply be a way for the reviewer to reify his or her ideas about what poetry is—and isn’t. Thus what I think most useful about Mancini’s argument, i.e., that it makes a case for the necessity of more imaginative critical practices in order to negotiate the very broad range of poetries that have developed in this country over the last sixty or so years. If that’s the case, the terms by which those postmodern poems are to be engaged by critics and reviewers ought not be identical to the way we might, for example, engage a book of sonnets. Likewise an appreciation, say, of Arnold Schoenberg would be obviously impossible if I believed that music must be tonally conceived; any atonal work would be, by definition, not music. (And I would be, almost by definition, a cultural boor).
I am, however, suspicious of Mancini’s method in its specifics. What he gives us are psychoanalytic-like redescriptions of the surface features of what is claimed to be a typical review. Yet the same problem holds for this procedure as holds for psychoanalysis in general: it offers an interpretation the strength of which is almost entirely conditioned by its acceptance as strong by the patient. If I fail to see the implication, for example, of an arch-pervert hidden in the unconscious of the connoisseur, then Mancini is simply left with repeating his interpretation. Or it’s as if Mancini offers us a series of jokes. Whether they succeed as jokes depends entirely on whether they make us laugh. If one does not, there’s little use saying it again. Moreover, I wonder whether some of these tropes are not far more useful than Mancini believes. Take the tropes of craft and tradition, both of which Mancini goes to lengths to dismiss. I agree that when taken as static fetish-like ideals, they may be less illuminating than otherwise. But when I praise a collection for its author’s attention and attainment of a high level of craft and of interestingly engaging with the English literary tradition, it seems possible—indeed, good critics show that it is possible—that I’ve used those tropes to point to actual features of the work of art as such. Of course these are not neutral categories; but it takes more than pointing out that fact to give us grounds for rejecting them. Furthermore, it seems to me that root metaphors—like craft and tradition—can be invoked to deal with a range of poetries. Again, no good critic would limit his or her discussion to the terms these tropes set beforehand; and he or she may wish to reject them for some artworks. Mancini will take issue with the very idea of “a work of art,” and claim to the contrary that these tropes are “inadequate to all poetry of any type.” To praise or simply engage a poem at the level of craft is then a kind of bad faith. Here, I feel, our disagreement runs far deeper than reasons comprehend.
What is a review for? What does a critic do? What a critic does not do, on Mancini’s view, is offer normative assessments. Those reviews which do so are characterized as “mercantile,” and are reduced to capitalistic tokens. Shane Neilson, for instance, is dismissed for evaluating poetry according to a normative checklist—intelligibility, meaning, emotional expressiveness—and rejecting poems which fail those criteria. I doubt Neilson would agree with this charge; nonetheless it is, on Mancini’s analysis, what he’s really doing. (Again the influence of psychoanalytic interpretation). Neilson, says Mancini, is representative of the critic-as-angry customer who merely wishes to return a product that he is unhappy with. Instead, Mancini endorses Frank Davey’s prescription that “textual criticism [be] informed by transnational creative and critical influences, one that attempts to meet language at its material bases, and to meet poetry at the site of composition […] What Davey envisions are poetics, rather than mercantile review criticism of imperative value judgment.” I won’t pretend to understand all the terms Mancini invokes. I’m not sure, for example, what is meant by the material bases of language, nor whether by transnational creative and critical influences Mancini means simply non-national. In any case, Mancini contrasts Neilson’s assessment of Kiyooka’s work—e.g., “it is difficult to pick just one offence against style and taste; Surrender is a repeat offender […] Indeed, confusion is a constitutive experience when reading through the whole book”—with Al Purdy’s reading of one of Kiyooka’s earlier books. Purdy describes Kiyooka’s poems as “creat[ing] an energy vortex in which all things turn inward and circle to an end inside the poem without question. The poem answers any implicit questions in process of asking.” The worth of Purdy’s description will naturally depend on our own acquaintance with the poetry in question, and I’ll assume here that Purdy’s statement is at least apt, if not illuminating. Mancini praises the review in the following terms: “without academic training in cultural theory, Purdy is perfectly able to read the effects of the form of Kiyooka’s poetry” in terms contiguous to those which the poetry itself asserts. He is “not fixated on poetry’s meaning […] representation or message.” I’m not sure if this example is sufficient to show the sort of textual criticism Mancini finally advocates. I take it, however, that Purdy’s critical attention is nonetheless lauded because he extends beyond his own poetics and inhabits Kiyooka’s work—albeit without, as Mancini notes, knowledge of critical theory.
It’s possible to disagree with Neilson’s rhetoric. And it seems equally possible, though a distinct activity, to disagree with Neilson’s opinion of Kiyooka’s poetry. It’s not obvious to me, however, why judgment and assessment of any kind is either precluded or opposed to the sort of hermeneutics Mancini calls for. It’s thus easy, again, to distrust the strong dichotomy Mancini asserts. In art, as in life, we do well to encounter strangeness with curiosity and an open mind. Even that supposedly conservative critic, T.S. Eliot, disparages the “dogmatic critic, who lays down a rule, who affirms a value.” Such a critic, Eliot continues, “has left his labour incomplete […] but in matters of great importance the critic must not coerce, and he must not make judgments of worse or better. He must simply elucidate: the reader will form the correct judgment for himself.” Critics and reviewers are just those partial and fallible readers who publically articulate their responses to texts as best as they can. A good critic’s evaluations are always tentative; he or she knows very well the risk of attempting to judge a work of art. He or she will acknowledge that evaluation is never neutral and no perspective is from nowhere. Good critics, in other words, wear their aesthetic biases on their sleeves and, like Nietzsche remarked, match the courage of their convictions with the courage to challenge those convictions.
I’ll end with the acknowledgement that there’s much more in Mancini’s book that I would have liked to discuss: his ideas about aesthetic conscience take up a good portion of the work, and will be of interest to those interested in the link between moral psychology and aesthetics. Also, I’d have questioned more explicitly Mancini’s use of critical theory and the jargon which comes with it. This is a book wherein you’ll encounter, for an extreme example, statements like this: “[t]he poet activates polysemy on the formal level of parataxis, and activates it contextually with indexical signs.” I’ve provided no context for this quote but, truth be told, there isn’t much context to add. Mancini offers this remark almost out of nowhere as a clarification and extension of the sort of criticism he believes adequate to distinctively post-modern texts. Elsewhere, citing an example Stanley Fish’s use of Derridian theory to deconstruct a Dirty Harry film, Mancini seems to seriously ask: “If Derrida’s ideas are good enough to write about the films of Clint Eastwood, why not about contemporary Canadian poetry?.” This is an odd rhetorical question. I don’t believe any serious critic, by which I mean a person with a broad and generous cultural sensitivity, will say that Derrida’s or Hegel’s or Marx’s or Foucault’s or whoever’s ideas aren’t “good enough.” The question, I assume, is whether those ideas are useful and illuminating when applied to contemporary Canadian poetry. And the answer is probably, yes, in some cases. In this connection, and at a more basic level, I believe it worth defending yet another trope Mancini dismisses: that of the non- (or anti-) academic critic: the strong distinction between those in the university and those not beholden to the university. Mancini’s text proves to be an unusual attempt to extend the concerns and categories of the former to the critical practices of the latter. That by itself makes this book an interesting read, especially and even if chiefly to those of us who have suffered both within and without the academy. Nonetheless, the expectation, often encountered in the 1990s in literature departments and ubiquitous in Mancini’s book, that a front line of progressive politics is practiced in the seminar room seems to me extremely dubious. Without reifying aesthetics and politics into separate spheres, we still do a disservice to both by collapsing one into the other. So too I wonder whether the influence of critical theory, with its roots in Hegel, Derrida, Lacan and co., is not merely a more recent example of Plato’s desire for the philosophers to tell the poets what they’re really doing. And, as in Plato, those who agree with Socrates nod their assent while the poets (and, probably the critics), then as now, imperfectly carry on.
 I suspect this combative rhetoric here, and in the literature at large, is largely nonsense. The only audible conflict is between those who feel it necessary to shout about their aesthetic preferences. I take it as obvious that it’s far more common than not for a single poet to be interested in many kinds of different poetry, even if he or she writes more or less formally (or more or less postmodernly). I know Carmine Starnino (again) and Christian Bök don’t much like each other’s work and once had a cage match but, really, shame on them both for agreeing to take part in such staged idiocy. ↩