Literary Artists' Statements
- George Bowering (Author)
A Magpie Life: Growing a Writer. Key Porter Books (purchase at Amazon.ca)
- David Helwig (Author)
Living Here. Oberon Press (purchase at Amazon.ca)
- Douglas Barbour (Author)
Lyric/Anti-Lyric: Essays on Contemporary Poetry. NeWest Press (purchase at Amazon.ca)
Reviewed by W. F. Garrett-Petts
A few months ago, when I was asked to review three new "critical autobiographies," I had just begun to investigate the role of artists’ statements in the visual arts. I found myself reading these three books—each offering a personal statement and writing history—in the context of what I was learning about the way artists work in other fields.
Like literary authors, visual artists must do a good deal of writing about their field and even about their own work. They write letters, reviews, critiques, proposals, grant applications, and perhaps most important of all for professional artists, artists’ statements. These take the form of short comments—miniature essays—that introduce an actual or proposed exhibition. Like prefaces in literary works, the artist’s statement performs a complex rhetorical role: it must provide content, context, technical specifications, establish the artist’s ethos and persuade the reader of the artwork’s value. When hung on a gallery wall, the statement (or "didactic") becomes both invitation and explanation, and in some measure an element of the installation itself. Artists’ statements call attention not only to the artworks they introduce, but to themselves—and to the artist as both creative and critical agent.
When Ne West Press’s "The Writer as Critic" series began in 1988, general editor Smaro Kamboureli in her preface argued that we should value a literary author’s critical work as important "beyond the secondary function assigned to it." Kamboureli’s preface introduces (and celebrates) "the shifting boundaries and intentions of the artist creatively writing criticism."
Works like Douglas Barbour’s Lyric/Anti-lyric (the latest publication in the NeWest series), George Bowering’s A Magpie Life, and David Helwig’s Living Here do not play exactly the same role as artists’ statements: they are not overt prefaces or introductions or even complements to each author’s body of work (although Bowering does take us behind the scenes, offering, in one chapter, a "diary" of his novel Shoot! and elsewhere a highly personal bio-critical anecdote about the composition of his much-anthologized poem "Grandfather"). More generally these books help define the role of critical autobiography in Canadian literature.
Ironically, the least autobiographical of these three books—Barbour’s LyriclAnti-lyric—provides us with the most searching inquiry into the tensions and aesthetics of combining personal expression and critical commentary. In his preface, "Confessions of a ’Formalist,’" Barbour defines himself as "a practicing poet [...] writing about the work of poets" he admires. He, like Bowering and many other contemporaries, expresses an allegiance to "form," to words, rhythms, and the "body" of literature; he is at home with "modern art, and with abstract art, especially with the art [. ..] that most displays itself as a ’work’ of art, in terms of the actual working that went into its making." Barbour’s "lyric/anti-lyric" sensibility values the formal movement of language most when it in some way announces the circumstances of its composition.
According to Barbour, the lyric impulse injects "emotional directness," "punch," personal "presence," "acute perceptual imagism," and a voice "still to be contended with or recognized for its own sake"; the anti-lyric—at least during the last seventy years or so—tempers this impulse, positing a "shifting I" capable of satire, comedy, narrative (as opposed to narration), and all manner of intertextual gestures. Barbour finds himself—and other contemporary poets—endlessly attracted to "the idea of lyric" and to its opposite, to "mining" and "undermining" the conventions of lyricism.
Throughout Lyric/’Anti-lyric, and with a nod to Marjorie Perloff’s The Poetics of Indeterminacy, the impossibility of pure lyric expression becomes a kind of rhetorical topos that guides Barbour’s inquiry into the writing of Michael Ondaatje, Anne Wilkinson, Eli Mandel, Phyllis Webb, bpNichol, E.D. Blodgett, Roy Kiyooka, Sharon Thesen, and a selection of contemporary Australian and New Zealand poets. Each chapter offers a carefully crafted reading, one sensitive to each poet’s aesthetics and work, yet, where appropriate, ready to draw out the lyric/anti-lyric elements. Professing a "genial eclecticism," Barbour nonetheless presents a remarkably coherent, consistently clear and engaging discussion of both the individual poets and their shared fascination with the lure and limitations of lyricism. The essays on Webb, Nichol, and Kiyooka are exemplary in this respect, offering deep poetic insight while maintaining a spirit of critical modesty, detachment, and honesty. Barbour represents himself as both poet and critic, and, in the process, embodies an important aspect of the lyric/anti-lyric dynamic.
As an "artist’s statement," Lyric/Anti-lyric represents Barbour the poet only indirectly, as someone moving comfortably within the conventions of first-person criticism, content to write his essays "as a series of notes, little travels over the body of single works." To write (critically) in the first person, to mix the personal and the professional, is an earned right, a mark of privilege; it is also a welcome relief from the dominant mode of literary criticism that pretends impersonal detachment. As a practising poet, Barbour has licence to speak in the first person; as a recognized artist he has an already developed ethos, a personal voice that speaks to and, to some degree, for the critical/literary community.
George Bowering’s collection of essays is a much more self-conscious assertion of the personal in the critical. Subtitled "Growing a Writer," A Magpie Life is part autobiography, but mainly, as Bowering has defined the form elsewhere, "biotext": writing as an extension of the creative writer as critic. A Magpie Life is a book about what Bowering calls the "double play" of writing. Quoting his former teacher Warren Tallman, Bowering notes that "The second baseman doesn’t think of himself when he participates in a double play." This is Bowering’s version of the lyric/anti-lyric paradox: the writer, when the writing is going well, becomes both subject and participant, someone who can articulate a critical position that refers to the personal without becoming overly invested in personal reference. For Bowering, personal anecdotes, stories and diary notes are points of departure for considering the network of connections that link writing and living: "I learned essay writing from Warren Tallman," he tells us. "He taught me that an essay was what Montaigne knew it to be— writing a life, living a life. He did not have much use for the usual academic essay because he could not find delight in it. He wanted to see that the writer delighted in his work, ’sensibility not in its literary but its literal, living sense, life conscious of surrounding life, direct communication.’" Lyric delight, "punch," is ubiquitous in A Magpie Life, but the anti-lyric self-consciousness keeps the writer’s mask in place as he covers a range of themes, including childhood, reading and writing, Tish, family, friends (especially fellow writers), the sixties, researching his novels, teaching, history, personal correspondence (including letters), music, and, inevitably, baseball.
Near the end of the book, in an essay entitled "The Reader and You," Bowering gives his own take on the "personal" in personal writing. Reflecting back on reading novels in a high school English class, he remembers being instructed to distinguish between the author and the narrator. The distinction holds for poetry as well— "between the person who writes the poem, even a short tidy lyric poem, and the voice you hear reciting it while you look at the silent book." Bowering makes it clear that he is discussing more than "the persona" here, for personal writing, if true to life, "extends" the author; and as a writer he delights in the indeterminacy of it all, celebrating the fate he knows faces "any writer of the first-person singular or ’ensemble,’ that as soon as he writes those words on a piece of paper he has an other to read." Such bio-critical expression—in which Bowering articulates his sense of the personal—constitutes both lively critical commentary and an important artist’s statement.
David Helwig describes his Living Here as a "book of reflections and memories." It seems, at first glance, a less self-conscious work than either Barbour’s or Bowering’s. Personal narrative and critical commentary intermix more subtly, moving from a short family history of food to family histories generally, to the extended family of writers such as Hugh MacLennan and Al Purdy.
Helwig is not overtly skeptical about the conventions of personal narrative and creative nonfiction. He is not interested in foregrounding indeterminacy or self-doubt as a personal aesthetic, but, like Barbour and Bowering, he remains intensely interested in questions of material agency— especially those moments when we are confronted by a mismatch between our assumed and lived realities: "we are, in fact, all sometimes at the wrong level of reality, living out a first-person fiction and trying to make others fit into it, appalled when they don’t."
When he focuses on writing and writers, Helwig is interested in forms "where our individuality is seen as a part of something larger." Helwig praises Purdy, for example, for liking complications—"not easy paradoxes, but the two sides of things being lived out at once." The best personal writing involves lyric and anti-lyric, a working out of the doubleness that links living and writing.
Collectively Barbour, Bowering, and Helwig argue for the place of personal criticism—not criticism fed by naïve notions of an essential or individual self, but writing that involves personal experience as a legitimate if problematic site for critical argument, exploration and expression.
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MLA: Garrett-Petts, W. F.. Literary Artists' Statements. canlit.ca. Canadian Literature, 8 Dec. 2011. Web. 7 Dec. 2013.
This review originally appeared in Canadian Literature #176 (Spring 2003), Anne Carson. (pg. 111 - 114)
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