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Current Issue: #220 Tracking CanLit (Spring 2014)

Canadian Literature’s Issue 220 (Spring 2014) is now available. The issue features a wide range of articles and book reviews as well as a selection of new Canadian poetry.

Lyrical Arguments

Reviewed by Jamie Dopp

The essays in Thinking and Singing are by turns lyrical and thoughtful, stimulating and provocative. They are even, in one or two places, funny. I found myself arguing with Lilburn and his contributors as much as agreeing with them, all the while enjoying the position, as reader, of being the sixth (or seventh) point in an ongoing conversation.

Dennis Lee’s “Body Music: Notes on Rhythm in Poetry” gives expression to the ideas that have shaped Lee’s understanding of poetry and the world since, at least, “Cadence, Country, Silence”: the world is polyrhythmic, and the best of poetry “tries to recreate the cadence of how things are, through the nitty-gritty of craft.” I was impressed by the precision of Lee’s analysis of the more particular aspects of rhythm in poetry and by an enabling playfulness that helps to embody his ideas in the “whiplash dynamic” of words. I was inclined to argue against Lee’s larger claims, such as the idea of a rhythm in the world that can be intuited with “no identifiable mediation,” which has a naively 1960s feel to it (rather like bp Nichol’s early infatuation with Palongawhoya). But the energy of Lee’s writing is winning nevertheless.

Don McKay’s “The Bushtit’s Nest” is the most compelling piece. In it, McKay offers a well-nuanced exploration of the writer as “a citizen of the frontier,” a creature who cannot but use words even as she attempts to write of what words cannot adequately capture. This claim leads to a fine definition of a poem: a poem, or poem-in-waiting, contemplates what language can’t do; then it does something with language—in homage, grief, anger, or praise. For MacKay, metaphors are “entry points where wilderness re-invades language, the place where words put their authority at risk.” In metaphor you have an example of language’s bravura, its power to explain and name, at the same time as an implicit recognition of the limits of language to represent the world.

Jan Zwicky’s “Dream Logic and the Politics of Interpretation” throws clear light on the relevance of Freud’s major insights to the practice of philosophy and poetry. Zwicky argues for the value for philosophical thinking of what Freud calls the “primary” psychical process, a process more traditionally identified with “creative” activities like poetry. “We have forgotten that the question of what constitutes philosophical clarity is a question,” writes Zwicky. “Civilization’s discontent [is] . . . the repressed knowledge that it is able to understand primary process without translation.”

One moment in Zwicky’s essay struck me as odd. After establishing primary process as a liberating “renegade mental activity,” Zwicky argues that the greater enemy of such activity is not “analytic” philosophy but rather poststructuralism. She identifies Derrida’s now infamous catch-phrase il n’y a pas de hors-texte with a “blithe nihilism . . . that most profoundly exemplifies the exclusion of non-linguistic thought.” Odd, since Derrida’s argument for the primacy of “writing” over “speech” is so dependent on a view of language that insists on the importance of what traditionally have been considered “non-linguistic” elements. Derrida’s own texts, so riddled with word play and neologisms and rhythmic repetition of ideas, try to foreground the very renegade elements that Zwicky champions. Indeed, the poets I know who read Derrida regularly (such as Stephen Scobie, who has a fine essay on Derrida in Signature, Event, Cantext) tend to read his texts more as poetry than philosophy.

All this leads me to the first of two general arguments I had with Thinking and Singing. In his preface, Lilburn suggests that there is “disagreement in what follows,” but in fact the essays all ultimately unravel a similar thought: that the truest strand in both thinking and poetry comes from a wakeful state rather like the one brought on by Buddhist meditation (what Lilburn calls “an alert emptiness”). All of the essays are anti-postmodern and antipoststructuralist; they all celebrate a reality beyond language that is apprehendable as such, in a state of immediate, Buddhist-like or phenomenological apprehension (though McKay is careful to keep an eye on the paradoxes of such a position). Not that I necessarily agree or disagree with this idea. Just that there seems something incomplete about a collection subtitled “Poetry and The Practice of Philosophy” that has so little engagement with what are arguably the most influential philosophical practices of recent years.

Which leads me to my second general argument. I found that the essays in this collection were better at making a case for the use of poetical thinking in philosophy than the other way around. To my mind, this turn avoids the greater problem—namely, that so much contemporary poetry is anti-intellectual. One of the more difficult tasks of those who, like myself, teach both poetry and philosophy, is to persuade beginning poets of the need to grapple with the intellectual currents of their time, to read and read widely, not just other poets and fiction but philosophy itself, even texts that they might find offputting and difficult (like Derrida). Though the essays in this collection are by no means anti-intellectual themselves, the endpoint they all more or less arrive at, the idea of a world that can be intuited with “no identifiable mediation” is not much help in the task of persuading anti-intellectual poets of the value of ideas. To put it rather glibly: poets of the anti-intellectual kind do not need arguments about the value of “alert emptiness”; “alert emptiness” defines their natural state.

My arguments with Thinking and Singing should not be read as a sign of weakness in the collection. Though I disagreed with various strands of thought unravelled in these essays, the essays provoked and stimulated me: they made me care enough to shape my disagreement into an argument. Thus it is with the best of conversations about both poetry and philosophy.

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MLA: Dopp, Jamie. Lyrical Arguments. canlit.ca. Canadian Literature, 8 Dec. 2011. Web. 23 Nov. 2014.

This review originally appeared in Canadian Literature #182 (Autumn 2004), Black Writing in Canada. (pg. 147 - 148)

***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.

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