Artful Poet-Criticism

  • James Pollock
    You Are Here: Essays on the Art of Poetry in Canada. Porcupine's Quill (purchase at
  • Carmine Starnino
    Lazy Bastardism: Essays and Reviews on Contemporary Poetry. Gaspereau Press (purchase at
Reviewed by Laura Cameron

“The virtues of a good critical reading,” writes James Pollock, are “openness, attentiveness, patience, critical intelligence—and love.” Above all, he adds, “criticism should be fully, humanly engaged.” In You Are Here: Essays on the Art of Poetry in Canada, Pollock models all of these qualities, as does Carmine Starnino in Lazy Bastardism: Essays and Reviews on Contemporary Poetry. As poet-critics, Pollock and Starnino share a special—and especially valuable—position: they are “personally implicated in the ways poems can fail” as only poets can be; and at the same time they “strive . . . to make those doubts plausible to those who d[o]n’t share them” as only a critic would. You Are Here and Lazy Bastardism display their authors’ mutual appreciation for the aesthetic merits of poetry, their similar personal investment in the judgments that they make, and their common expectation that writing poetry and reading critically are both activities that require training, erudition, and the greatest degree of care and alertness.

In You Are Here, James Pollock argues that literature should be both produced and judged with an acute awareness of international aesthetic traditions, and that in Canada, at least since the 1950s, these wider aesthetic contexts have been “distorted or suppressed” for the sake of nationalist ideology. Pollock’s critical preferences come across very clearly in the twelve review essays that make up the first two sections of You Are Here, including reviews of new and collected work by Daryl Hine, Dennis Lee, Anne Carson, Jeffery Donaldson, Marlene Cookshaw, Karen Solie, and Eric Ormsby, a review of W.J. Keith’s Canadian Literature in English, and four reviews of anthologies. In these reviews and in the two theoretical essays that conclude his book, Pollock identifies as “an aesthete.” He seeks in poetry “a pair of rare and beautiful things: technical mastery, and an authoritative engagement with international poetic traditions” that will be answered by “a clear-eyed, energetic and discerning critical response.” He satisfyingly practices what he preaches: manifestly well-read in “the whole history of Western poetry,” Pollock writes about poems and their techniques and influences with a patient, thorough adroitness that makes close reading look easy.

It is difficult to disagree with Pollock’s conviction that the aesthetic features of a poem are crucial to its success, or that poetry should be read in its international contexts. It also seems reasonable that excessive allegiance to nationalist ideology might engender a critical tradition that “lionizes . . . bad and mediocre poets and marginalizes . . . good ones.” But Pollock’s use of the imprecise terms “good,” “bad,” and “mediocre” is frequent enough to be off-putting. Criticism might well require personal evaluative judgments, as he says, but subjectivity is not license for vagueness; articulating personal opinions requires a more nuanced critical vocabulary than a scientific, objective assessment would. It will probably take more than calling Al Purdy, George Bowering, Margaret Atwood, Leonard Cohen, Fred Wah, and bpNichol “a great whack of bad and mediocre poets,” for instance, to convince readers that these are indeed boring and overrated writers. Moreover, in his efforts to counteract the “self-destructive” nationalism of earlier critics and poets who, in his eyes, sought “to avoid the influence of ’foreign’ poetry and poetics,” Pollock swings too far the other way, even venturing to dismiss A.M. Klein, one of Canada’s most cosmopolitan poets, as merely “a tragic figure who wrote some fine poems”—“but a major poet . . . he is not.” Pollock’s obsession with escaping “the forest of nationalist ideology” becomes itself a border-drawing ideology. This limitation does not subtract from the obvious merits and value of his work, but it is worth acknowledging.

Carmine Starnino’s Lazy Bastardism: Essays and Reviews of Contemporary Poetry, on the other hand, is free of border-related angst. Starnino is concerned with “contemporary poetry”—there is no “in Canada” in his title—but his subject matter is unapologetically, unanxiously Canadian. Lazy Bastardism is, like You Are Here, a collection of review essays, framed by theoretical pieces on the art of poetry and literary criticism. “Lazy bastardism,” Starnino explains in the first of these essays, is when readers “would rather not take the trouble” to engage with or to acquire a taste for demanding, difficult poems. It is also when poets “kowtow to the convenience of see-Jane-run simple-mindedness because, by gosh, that’s what most people want from their poetry.” “Lazy bastardism” is, in short, when neither poet nor reader wishes to risk commitment.

Starnino is certainly not a lazy bastard; on the contrary, he is a committed reader and writer whose fair, learned, informative, and dazzlingly written reviews cover poets from the worthily well-known (Earle Birney, Irving Layton) to the worthy but lesser-known (David O’Meara, Anne Szumigalski). The results of his self-professed affection “for the unlucky in fame” are a number of eloquent celebrations of underappreciated writers. Many of the essays in Lazy Bastardism handily raise larger questions that are relevant well beyond the individual volumes that they review. Starnino explores the role of the poet-critic in his essay on Adam Kirsch, and in his sensitive appraisal of Margaret Avison, he contemplates poetic innovation. The pieces on older, established figures—Margaret Atwood, Don McKay, bpNichol—are preoccupied with legacy, posterity, and the sustainability of poetic creativity. Starnino writes with particular ease and enthusiasm about Montreal poetry, and his essay on John Glassco, a highlight in the collection, is also a succinct literary-historical account of the 1940s heyday of the Montreal Group poets.

The fact that just six of the twenty-two poets discussed in this volume are women is somewhat troubling; this is surely just a circumstance determined by availability, but it is telling nonetheless. Additionally, the book lacks and needs a proper introduction that straightforwardly sets out its principles of inclusion and organization. The alphabetical arrangement of the reviews is occasionally jarring and, at the risk of sounding like a lazy bastard myself, I would have appreciated a more explicit orientation. A convenient advantage of the alphabetical order, however, is that it allows Starnino to open with a rather spectacular take-down of Margaret Atwood who, he claims, has been turned into a “walking manifesto” by the “star-struck literary-industrial complex [that] has sprung up around her.” Lazy Bastardism is full of such pithy and resonant insights. “Style is what happens when originality becomes indistinguishable from the poem itself,” Starnino quips. “In our mashup-mad era, we yearn for unpigeonholeability.” Some might accuse Starnino of overwriting at moments like these, but his linguistic exuberance never comes at the expense of clarity. The style engages the poetry and the reader and implicitly conveys Starnino’s love for his subjects; his poetic-critical language is the connective hyphen in his poet-critic persona.

You Are Here and Lazy Bastardism are important books. On a practical level, they are important because they do justice to rich poetry and varied poetic careers through intelligent, sensitive, and captivating close readings. On a cultural level, they are important because they are concerned with nothing less than the future of Canadian poetry. Both Pollock and Starnino make the high stakes of their work palpable with grace and style.

This review “Artful Poet-Criticism” originally appeared in Tracking CanLit. Spec. issue of Canadian Literature 220 (Spring 2014): 178-180.

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