- Peter Jaeger (Author)
ABC of reading TRG. Talonbooks (purchase at Amazon.ca)
- Megan Simpson (Author)
Poetic Epistemologies: Gender and Knowing in Women's Language-Oriented Writing. State University of New York Press (purchase at Amazon.ca)
Reviewed by Christine Stewart
In Poetic Epistemologies, Megan Simpson explores the work and thinking of eight contemporary American women poets: Lyn Hejinian, Leslie Scalapino, Susan Howe, Carla Harryman, Mei-mei Berssenbrugge, Lori Lubeski, Laura Moriarty, Beverly Dahlen. She defines these writers as language-oriented writers who share an affinity with language poetry, but also work beyond its community and its concerns. According to Simpson, language-oriented writers continually and openly question how meaning is constructed in language. They understand this questioning as having political, stylistic, aesthetic, societal, biological and gendering consequences. Simpson also looks to the work of women modernist writers, Gertrude Stein, H.D., Mina Loy, and Laura (Riding) Jackson. She shows the influence of their innovative poetic practices on the language-oriented writers of her study.
Simpson’s book researches "some of the most vital and powerful poetry being written today" and her inclusion of the modernist women poets recognizes them (as is not always done) as an imaginative force that lies behind a great deal of contemporary poetry. Simpson explains how these writers offer us "language-oriented feminist epistemologies." She defines these epistemologies as "ways of knowing" that take gender into account without essentializing it and that investigate knowledge and "conditions of knowing" through language. Her research includes concise analysis of poetry, poetics and a clear theoretical tracing of the writers’ various poetics. She also includes her own correspondence and interviews with the writers. The result is a detailed critical investigation of crucial and previously neglected poetry and poetics.
However, Simpson never formally takes up the compelling challenges these writers offer. In fact, her style serves as a striking example of a "dominant and normative discourse in North American culture" against which Simpson’s writing subjects rail. Simpson isn’t entirely unaware of this problem. She explains that her "kind of scholarship" runs the "necessary" risk of "reducing, simplifying, or supplanting" its subject matter. She takes the risk and the text suffers. Trapped almost entirely within conventional academic phrasing and uninspired syntax, Simpson’s style constrains the reading of the work she admires. The tone of her investigation stiffens the investigative play and plasticity of the work she researches. Without exception the writing subjects of Simpson’s book work to free up what American language poet Michael Palmer calls "the sclerotic word—a word with its veins clogged, a dying word." As poet H.D. writes, it is a poetic "fight for life ... for breath." Presumably Simpson’s text will make the works of these women more available to a wider academic audience. But the formal choices she makes as a writer inhibit the project and ironically quell the poetic writing she presents.
Peter Jaeger’s ABC of reading TRG is more formally attuned to the challenges set forth by the writers he studies. Jaeger looks at Canadian poets bp Nichol and Steve McCaffery and their writing project of the 70’s, the TRG—the Toronto Research Group. As Jaeger tells us in the first sentence, "ABC of Reading TRG is not about what the Toronto Research Group’s reports are about, but about what they invite us to think about."
In response to Nichol’s obsession with the alphabet and McCaffery’s "concern with the materialization of the signifier," Jaeger creates twenty-six investigative, contemplative sections: "Alphabet," "Book-Machine," "Canada-Concrete," "Derrida," "Excess Expenditure," and so forth. These sections are preceded by "Operating Instructions" where Jaeger foregrounds the details of his research and thinking. These include the subject matter of The Toronto Research reports, theoretical influences and interpretation, the reports’ refusal of what Jaeger terms "Canlit tropes" (such as authentic voice, the land, Canadian identity), McCaffery and Nichol’s European, American and Modernist influences and the deep philosophical/poetical differences between the two poets.
It is possible to read this book as an entire work or to browse in its individual sections. It can be read front to back, back to front or cormorant style—diving in where it looks good. The unorthodoxy of its form does not compromise the text’s critical acuity. It gives formal and compelling evidence of the invigorating impact of these writers on the thinking/writing mind of Jaeger. As he states, "[t]his book answers to the hail of the TRG, while simultaneously subjecting that hail to critical scrutiny." This is precisely what the work of Nichol and McCaffery asks for from its readers: a responding, thinking hail. Jaeger presents us with a respectful critique of the specific TRG project and the contrasting styles and fates of the work of Nichol and McCaffery. He raises necessary questions about the nature of Canlit and the intellectual limits of its nation-building aspirations. Like the collaborative works of McCaffery and Nichol, Jaeger’s text is an "exceptional sit[e] for dialogue."
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MLA: Stewart, Christine. Interpreting Poetry. canlit.ca. Canadian Literature, 8 Dec. 2011. Web. 19 Dec. 2013.
This review originally appeared in Canadian Literature #176 (Spring 2003), Anne Carson. (pg. 188 - 189)
***Please note that the articles and reviews from the Canadian Literature website (www.canlit.ca) may not be the final versions as they are printed in the journal, as additional editing sometimes takes place between the two versions. If you are quoting from the website, please indicate the date accessed when citing the web version of reviews and articles.