- Clint Burnham (Author)
The Only Poetry That Matters: Reading the Kootenay School of Writing. Arsenal Pulp Press (purchase at Amazon.ca)
Reviewed by Gregory Betts
The Only Poetry That Matters is the first scholarly book on the Kootenay School of Writing (KSW), the longest running avant-garde literary collective in Canada’s history. It is an important addition to a field in which critics have been surprisingly reserved; the field at present includes only a small number of anthologies and essays and one special issue of a journal. There is still very much to say about the KSW. This book jumps without reservation into its topic, only tersely and rather late in its discussion summarizing the history and personalities of the KSW. Consequently, this book will grow in significance as the conversation around and about the KSW catches up to it.
While it is a long overdue extended effort, it is immediately remarkable for what it avoids in that ripe terrain. Burnham has opted not to tell the story of the group, in however nuanced a fashion he might have chosen from the rich palette of postmodern historiographic techniques. He has, however, attempted to establish some parameters or terms for a conversation about the KSW. He does not systematically catalogue the names of all the principal figures involved in the collective, nor has he attempted to catalogue the texts and contexts of their work, but he does isolate a small number of potent exemplars to illuminate his theoretical frame. The Only Poetry That Matters thus reads more like the third or fourth book on a topic: eschewing the establishmentarian phase—the obvious what is it and why is it interesting approach—for an idiosyncratic fresh angle on a well-travelled topic.
What does Burnham write about then? Charles Bernstein says it well in his back-cover blurb:
This book could be subtitled Indeed, the greater part of this book is spent explicating Lacan’s theories and methods and then applying them to a very small number of poems written by a few members of the collective. Why Lacan? Well, ignoring the personal anecdotes that the author occasionally references as justification, I note that the close readings themselves present enough compelling evidence for this vantage point: Burnham demonstrates significant overlap between Lacanian concepts and KSW aesthetics, particularly through the linguistic interrogation of the semiotic. There is a shared endeavour to confront the cultural basis of meaning-making, eschewing a more digestible nomenclaturist conceptualization and expressivist use of language. The language of KSW poetry includes a politically perhaps ontologically engaged writing of absence, a
Dr. Lacan in British Columbia. Burnham ventriloquizes the old master.
breaking off of discourse . . . that brings about full meaning through negation and contestation.
Burnham’s book identifies three recurring techniques in KSW writing, which he describes as empty (and full) speech, social collage, and neo-pastoralism. While he resists making any totalizing proclamations about the relation between these three and KSW writing as a whole, he demonstrates how Lacanian approaches to each can be useful in reading difficult poems. Even his exegesis of Red Toryism, a Canadian political concept that he articulates in the context of representations of the landscape in work by Peter Culley, Dan Farrell, and Lisa Robertson, approaches that concept through Lacan’s notions of desire and split subjectivity. A similar framing occurs in his discussion of the KSW archives.
Who is this book for? Literary theorists will find it instructive as a case study in using Lacanian models as the template for literary analysis and exegesis. While it does not serve as a general introduction to the KSW, it does offer a number of pedagogical close-readings of KSW authors and texts sprinkled throughout the book, teaching readers how KSW (or Language, or L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E) works. These sections are fascinating exercises in unpacking dense linguistic nuggets without sacrificing their nuanced language. To be clear, the book presents these as exemplars of its theoretical frame(s), putting the theory first, without explaining why it addresses some works over others. Instead, this book works from an unstated assumption about the KSW as a known phenomenon with recognized contributions to literature. This is a book, then, that will grow in significance as—and admittedly if—a broader conversation about North American literature grows in its direction, learns who and what the KSW is, was, and are, and recognizes significance in its ongoing impact in Lacanian terms. Bernstein’s blurb on the back cover describes the KSW as
an absolutely crucial, compelling, and provocative poetry collective that emerged on Canada’s West Coast in the 1980s. After The Only Poetry That Matters, there is still room for that kind of
first book on the collective to make the case explicitly.
- Inside Scaffoldings by Keith Wilkinson
Books reviewed: Interference with the Hydrangea by Mari-Lou Rowley, Origins by George Whipple, and On Order and Things by Antonio D'Alfonso and Stefan Psenak
- La littérature québécoise, versant mâle by Benoît Trudel
Books reviewed: Au-delà du nom : La question du père dans la littérature québécoise actuelle by Lori Saint-Martin and Être ou ne pas être un homme : La masculinité dans le roman québécois by Victor-Laurent Tremblay
- Tragique émorationnalité by Stéphane Girard
Books reviewed: Suites sociologiques by Simon Laflamme and Jean Marc Dalpé: Ouvrir d'un dire by Stéphanie Nutting and François Paré
- Quêtes by Emmanuel Bouchard
Books reviewed: Epiphany, Arizona by Pierre Barrette, La lenteur du monde by Michel Pleau, and Les Yeux sur moi by Martin Thibault
- Divining the Elegiac by David Leahy
Books reviewed: Slender Human Weight by Sue Chenette, The Crow's Vow by Susan Briscoe, and The He We Knew by Merle Nudelman
MLA: Betts, Gregory . Signifier Desire. canlit.ca. Canadian Literature, 8 Aug. 2012. Web. 6 Dec. 2013.
This review originally appeared in Canadian Literature #215 (Winter 2012), Indigenous Focus. (pg. 156 - 157)
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