Condition Critical

  • Shane Neilson (Author)
    The Negative Review: Unfit Criticism #4. ShanCor Enterprises (purchase at
  • Shane Neilson (Author)
    Marginal: Unfit Criticism #3. ShanCor Enterprises (purchase at
  • Shane Neilson (Author)
    Personal Investments: Unfit Criticism #2. ShanCor Enterprises (purchase at
  • Shane Neilson (Author)
    Retractable Devil Horns: Unfit Criticism #1. ShanCor Enterprises (purchase at

Yep, prepare to shell out $500 each (or $1250 for all) to purchase Shane Neilson’s self-published quartet of bolekaja (Yoruba: “Come down and fight”) lit crit because each two hundred-plus-page, hardcover and dust-jacketed work exists in editions of twenty-five copies. Only. Extant are one hundred copies (total) of Neilson’s antinomian screeds versus the CanLit Emporium. Thus, your buy-in will be an investment, for these already invaluable volumes may soon be priceless.


Once a CanLit generation, a John Metcalf appears: To archly reject the Mr. Nice Guy smiley face; to refuse the Jack McClelland fountain pen to take up the Jack the Ripper dagger. Such is Neilson.


The delinquent defaces muckamucks (literary, scholarly, journalistic) and worse, scrapes away at the gold leaf festooning their reputations to reveal rust. His rebuttals are ass-kickings; illumination is got by flame-thrower; puffed-up egos get stomped on so that the goop squirts out, smearing all.


As acerbic as Céline, and, like Céline, a medical doctor, Neilson (also a PhD in English), has self-published this quartet because of his belief that his previous critical work, Constructive Negativity: Prize Culture, Evaluation, and Disability in Canadian Poetry (2019), was too “tolerant” of entities meriting decapitation. Yet, what commercial press could afford to take the risk of pissing off bureaucratic bankrollers or woke insomniacs?


Moreover, Neilson is a contrarian, and “idiosyncratic,” an intellectual wanting to say “what I want, the way I want.” He’ll not spoon sugar when acid needs be hurled. Yet, his impassioned diatribes—and heartfelt encomia—arise from his devotion to Poetry; its temple must never be besmirched by treacle or stained by bullshit. A poet’s duty is to read other poets and credit lofty achievement and dogged effort, and debit phenomenal failings.


Neilson wants CanLit to be GREAT; but it cannot be so unless writers shun the echo-chamber say-so of brown-nosing prize juries, sycophantic scholars, and backslapping critics. Thus, he must “puncture stinkdom”; he must slog through the “backwater cesspool” in which Anglo-Canuck poets steep.


These four tomes will become coveted items because the writing—sassy, smart, inquisitorial, sarcastic, comic, sly, and exact—is so searchingly aesthetic (seeking The Good in poets and poetry) and relentlessly belletristic. Insight condenses as epigram: “Poems . . . exist as the crust of consciousness; entire lives are thrown into their development, and then entire lives are cultivated in revision, misgivings, cavils, and enthusiasms.” Bons mots coalesce: “Such is the case with good poetry: it begs for more of the not-same, an outdoing, and now that the poet [Carmine Starnino] has delineated his bonds over all his books, he can now break them.” True: It is only one man’s perspective; however, icons are just cons if they cannot repulse the iconoclast’s would-be pulverizing sledgehammer.


While Neilson is happy to shiv a poetaster, to brain a poseur, he takes care to thumbs-up worthy writers or works, or to praise an author’s capacious ambit, although the ambition finds curtailment. He audits the accidental arias that suddenly beautify pedestrian recitative.


The seventy-three book reviews, short essays, interviews, email and/or blog reprints, assembled over—ahem, “The Four Quartets”—appeared between 1999 and 2021, gleaned from now-disappeared magazines such as Books in Canada, or from small, regional (often online) journals, or from physician-oriented house organs. It is in these belles-lettres publications and medical venues—however obscure or ephemeral—that Neilson undertakes the yeoman task of literary critique.


In Retractable Devil Horns: Unfit Criticism #1, which opens with a Judith Butler epigraph inveighing against anti-intellectualism, Neilson resurrects pieces that did not appear in Constructive Negativity due, well, to an overabundance of caution, i.e., self-censorship. Herein, he excises from his conscience those excisions.


Thus, the opening peroration mourns the “death” of book reviewing in Canada, which positions Neilson to attack the tendency of critics to flatulently deify the “dreadful”—especially the latest releases of Big Names—while unforgivably negating the excellence available from non-cocktail-circuit authors published by humble presses. This article was originally published in 2001, when books—even of poetry—were still being reviewed (if never enough) by major newspapers and even, occasionally, in popular magazines. Now, book reviewing (if not actual reading) belongs to bloggers, blurbers, and influencers, a situation so dire that one almost yearns for the era of ejaculatory daisy chains linking publishers, reviewers, and prize jurists.


(I agreed to serve as a juror for the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize for Fiction—Canada and the Caribbean—in 1993, but was told—in January—that the winner would be Michael Ondaatje for The English Patient. I resigned: Why bother browsing the boxes of books shipped my way?)


Neilson sees the existential threat to poetry as being political correctness (I’ll term it “Political Corrections”—to align it with Corrections Canada) or “egalitarianism”: two persuasions irritated that lasting Art, answering only to “posterity,” is unanswerably elitist.


Still, “Prize Culture” (the carrot shadowing the stick of political correctness) is down-’n’-dirty incest gussied up as avuncular nepotism. Admonishes Neilson, “Poetry is a discipline of posterity, and Prize Culture is a discipline of publicity.”


Thus, sight the standoffish smarty-pants, the highfalutin connoisseur scorning “Soviet Canuckistan” (merci, Pat Buchanan) Philistines and Babbitts. Still, Neilson isn’t solely a purgative. He reads Fredericton’s Sharon McCartney entire (up to 2010), to register that her grief “is invited to the table of poetry, the discomfiture of her art becoming ours.” He also sits to Marc di Saverio’s Sanatorium Songs (2010), whose eleven poems, constructed “small and well,” are “unified, dexterous, wild, coursing, image-rich, and shining.”


Neilson’s assessment of the folksy bard Al Purdy (1918-2000) accords him a lumpenproletarian summation: He died due to “too many cigarettes, cigars, beverages, and barroom words”—though not, apparently, brawls. Well, he was more Robert Lowell than Robert Service; and his public image—that “laugh track mode”—more an echo of tux-clad Pierre Berton than ever a channelling of buckskin-jacketed Pierre Trudeau.


Personal Investments: Unfit Criticism #2 forwards verses from Lavinia Greenlaw, who notices, “Someone was making the noise we wanted to / about feelings we didn’t know we had.” In these two dozen pieces (including one that’s only a title, its contents suppressed “owing to sensitive material”), Neilson centres prose—fiction and non, Canuck and not—but applies himself to being Greenlaw’s “Someone”: To ferret out literary maladies and to prescribe remedies for (mental) illnesses “we didn’t know we had.” Neilson dubs this procedure “bioreviewing.” Or: Personal experience and emotional response matter when critiquing texts.


The debut essay vivifies Neilson’s need to read sensitively. He juxtaposes nerve-wracking hospital visits alongside his sick boy with the sifting of poems by W. H. Auden, Ben Jonson, Philip Levine, and Edwin Muir, to realize that “The living are what we are cheated of, and the dead are what we remember of beauty.” Our mortality—which Neilson witnesses, “even standing as I have over beds in hospitals and sick rooms, this shared condition is entirely beautiful.” He is not just—is never—a disembodied intellect, but shares how literature touches, strokes, clasps, grasps, but also gut-punches and slaps down.


So, Neilson is able to discuss reclaim (2011), his book published in an edition of one (yessum, one), comprised of some fifty poems, as a Valentine’s Day gift to Janet Sunohara-Neilson (“Scientist and Mom and Wife”), and offer this revelation: “I’m a love poet and the poems I love best are, naturally, love poems.” After the smashing, bashing, and slashing that dominate Retractable Devil Horns, the declaration is unexpected; yet, for Neilson, love seems an amalgam of “Pain, poetry, and human contact”; he writes at the nexus of the biological, the biographical, the bibliophile.


Regarding poetry translation, Neilson hails again di Saverio; who is able to imbue “the French masters (Baudelaire, Rimbaud, . . . Nelligan) with dense linguistic ornamentation.” Still, Neilson’s true interest is to establish that “Poetry is not only a good alternate gravity realm for translation, where definitional meaning can begin to float away, but it’s also an art form well-suited for non-normative bodies and minds to use.”


For Neilson, the absolute beauty of poesy is its perchance evasion of the “normal,” of the confines of singular interpretation. Similarly, “fiction is the apotheosis of freedom, the place of lucid truth-telling”; yet, it can also be “impossibly Byzantine,” an analysis that permits Neilson to uphold Douglas Glover as a novelist rivalling Vladimir Nabokov and James Joyce. “Ripe for interpretation,” is Glover, but not so lyrical as to produce “Poetic Fog,” or “Baroque Lyrical,” which are defects—Neilson detects—in Michael Ondaatje and Anne Michaels (the other Two Michaels?). But Neilson savages Peter Behrens for his “Faux Lyrical” style that prettifies vanilla vapidity with a purple haze: “The O’Briens is Finnegans Wake in the Porridge Universe. It comes out the other end. And you’re better.”


The doctor-author (shades of William Carlos Williams) also reviews books on Big Pharma, the development of neonatal (preemie) care out of carny sideshows, and a disturbingly depressing study of depression prescriptions. (I recall the catholicity of subject also surveyed by The John Fraser of Violence in the Arts [1974]).


Neilson models Metcalf—and Philip Marchand and Starnino—as noble precedents for kicking overhyped literati in their huge, rouge Royal Canadians (i.e., arses). Yet, he dissents when another Metcalf acolyte—Stephen Henighan—attempts the same. Why? Because Marchand’s takedowns of Ondaatje and Timothy Findley arose from his “humility” regarding his own inability to write fiction, whereas Henighan’s “cranky dissatisfactions” stem merely from “spite” at being a “neglected author.” Thus, Henighan—deplores Neilson—offers “unsupported assertions” backed only by “an army of me, myself, and I.”


Two interviews close the volume. A charming ars poetica penned by the minds behind Thee Hellbox Press (Hugh Barclay and Faye Batchelor) advises that “intelligence has an obligation to serve and it does not have privilege.” Jim Johnstone and Neilson trade ideas about the utility of scientific diction in poetry.


Marginal: Unfit Criticism #3 was birthed on the cutting-room floor of Margin of Interest (2019), a collection of pieces on Maritime literati that was intended to be lengthier than it is, but was “limited” by the “asshole spouse” (male) of the book’s “co-publishing marital team.” Over its eighteen articles and single closing poem, Marginal considers Maritime poets and critics, anthologists, letterpress printer-publishers, and most tenderly, Neilson’s late mother, Elizabeth Margaret Neilson. Herein Neilson pilgrimages to parley with idols—Wayne Clifford, M. Travis Lane, David Helwig, and Peter Sanger—and so adds homespun observation to his forensic sifting of their poetry or criticism.


Normally not a bum-boy, Neilson genuflects to PEI poet J. J. Steinfeld, who he reads positively—alongside Romanian-German poet Paul Celan (1920-70), who is also a second-generation Jewish survivor of the Holocaust. Now, this essay is disingenuous piffle. Why? Neilson segregates his blunt truth to his rearguard notes: “Steinfeld is a terrible poet.”


Equally drubbed is PEI poet Anne Compton. “Taken in this light [of her “Bryn Mawr accent”], her poetry isn’t surprising, one wants to mutter bullshit at the end of every line.”


Nor fare well non-Maritime lit crits and Atlantic-Canadian anthologists. The former resent any depiction of seaside life that is not tourist-fare, “local colour,” or quixotically Victorian (“pasture, fog, or sea” romanticizing the Down East); the latter self-marginalize “so easily [ . . . ] the salty poets from the region” by overlooking their diversity in style and substance. Eschewing “Atlantic Canadian” (because the designation washes out the differences between Newfoundland and the other beached have-nots), Neilson demands a criticism of “Maritimity” poetry that—as in Indigenous cultures—values place and belonging, the environmentally yielded wisdom of a long occupancy. Not as a fossilizing “regionalism,” but as a rubric resistant to the erasures wrought by neo-liberal globalization. He has much good to say, then, about scholars Herb Wyile (1960-2016) and Malcolm Ross (1911-2002), as well as poets Lane and Sanger, all being critics at home in region, and all dismissive of pastoral humbug and nostalgic claptrap.


Neilson’s poet selection fields a Maritime pantheon with room for the outliers (Helwig, Clifford, and Lane), while also roping in the canonical: John Thompson (1938-76), Alden Nowlan (1933-83), and Milton Acorn (1923-86). Neilson favours Sanger as Thompson’s editor and apostolic promoter, and goes to meet his “hero” so as to locate Thompson’s grave, its stone now moss-overgrown. Next, Neilson defends Nowlan’s reputation against the “Woke White Male” who’d cancel the poet for his perceived misogyny. Indeed, to nix Nowlan, is to exchange, warns Neilson, “the exhausted moral regime of one era with the righteously indignant regime of another.” Neilson also backs Acorn, arguing that his fuming-cigar fulminations are best appreciated by “Adding the refracting prism of drunkenness,” thereby arriving at “a legitimate characterization” of Acorn’s politics as “radical obfuscation.” Apt it is that mentally ill Maritimer Neilson finds affinity with other non-normative Maritime poets: Thompson—caught between drink and depression, Nowlan—once an asylum inmate, and Acorn—navigating “a nexus of madness.”


Invaluable are such explications of mistakes and retrievals of reps. Still, omissions and errors occur. Thompson’s university was Mount Allison—not Acadia. Neilson notes neither Nowlan’s asylum stint nor his fawning over royalty (and plumping for Tory politics). Also MIA is Acorn’s short-lived marriage (1962) to poet Gwendolyn MacEwen (1941-87). Perhaps Lane “has professionally published more book reviews . . . over a longer period of time than any Canadian writer alive.” Hmmm . . . I’ll mention that, between June 1993 and February 2016, I bylined a biweekly book-review column in Halifax Herald papers, usually covering two poetry volumes “per.” (You do the math.) I don’t covet Lane’s crown, but facts be facts.


Nicely, Neilson acknowledges my work; but he is mum on Africadian poet Maxine Tynes (1949-2011); and also Sino-Nova Scotian poet Cheng Sait Chia (1940-81). He does ponder Acadian poet Herménégilde Chiasson, even translating his work, and that’s a boon. Neilson also reveres fine-press publisher Rabbittown Press, and grants Gaspereau Press its due plaudits.


And poignant is Neilson’s prose: “In the ruins of beauty, there are beautiful ruins—what can be called ‘yet beauty.’”


The Negative Review: Unfit Criticism #4 reprises the “constructive negativity” of Retractable Devil Horns and the threat to Canadian poetry (especially) posed by would-be social-engineering schools of criticism (also a worry—vis-à-vis “Maritimity” poesy—in Marginal). However, the terminal volume in the quadrumvirate stands out for another reason: Website subscribers, paying “$3,500,” funded its publication: “The Negative Review is the first Substack-financed book of Canadian Poetry criticism ever, and perhaps it will be the only one.” Charging subscribers $10 per month to read his asseverations permitted Neilson to thwart gatecrashing trolls: “only the most incorrigible personalities would bother to spend money to read something they claimed to despise.”


Freed from having to treaty with twittering twits, but also from having to kowtow to pussyfooting editors of commercial publishers and academic or literary journals, Neilson is foolhardy enough (he opines) to ink “aesthetic criticism”—even if some deem that approach as canonizing elitists like Matthew Arnold so as to demonize insurgents like Malcolm X. Still, Neilson holds that “poetry reviewing has become a place for supporting progressive causes” rather than undertaking the intellectually finicky and culturally tricky work of evaluating a text’s vices and virtues. To fail to do so is, however, to fail to regard beauty: “the true oppressor when it comes to Canadian poetry criticism is politics, and the oppressed is the esthetic.”


Thus, after reprinting—inexplicably—his Nowlan essay (from Marginal), Neilson holds that CanLitCrit remains “stuck” in a “thematic” mode, though the themes have shifted. In the 1960s-80s, the “nationalist” bent saw scholars laud mediocre settler-colonial writers. Currently, though, the “resistance” trope sees academics fetishize representative, marginalized voices, applauding their “authenticity,” even if their works are—alas—just as mediocre as those of the (now reviled) dead-white-dudes. For Neilson, “shame” for settler-colonial crimes has caused the CanLit Emporium to cease to celebrate Atwoodian survival-in-the-Frygian-bush-garden to instead—correctly—champion BIPOC survival-of oppression(s). However, with the woke thought-police ever-vigilant, their Internet panopticon surveilling every potential traitor to their preferred notions of “Peace, Order, and Good Government,” what was CanLit is now, they say, a “dumpster fire,” from which none may rescue any standard of “beauty” or identify what is just toxic trash.


To trump “equity” seems to mean, then, posits Neilson, that aesthetics gets dumped. Banality is thus elevated and fraud is rewarded. Exhibit “A” in this regard is Gwen Benaway—“a fake Indigenous”—whose Governor-General’s-Award-winning book of poems, Holy Wild (2018), lacks “poetry”: For instance, one lyric ambles “random lineation [that] belies a depressing linearity in terms of the sense.” Other proofs of this problematic? “Middle Aged White Straight Male Mediocrities”—Jay MillAr, Paul Vermeersch, and Starnino (here falling from Neilson’s grace)—whose selected poems work to sedate their unruly, younger selves. (Another Neilson star hereby tumbled down is di Saverio, whose Crito di Volta [2020] is deemed almost irredeemably mad—and/or bad.) Note also “Racialized Exemplars of the Status Quo”—chiefly, Dionne Brand (who is so “powerful” that all refuse to question poetry that is “academic-sounding thingyness with dreamy prose sketches”—or purple prose with an Ivory Tower glaze) and her “rebranding,” i.e., Canisia Lubrin. (Incidentally, scholar Paul Barrett’s praising of Brand’s supposed illumination of the “sordid origins that comprise Black people’s being” seems a blemishing—I trust inadvertent—of Négritude itself.) Finally, reviewing the twenty-first-century shortlists and winners of Canada’s most lucrative literary prizes, Neilson establishes that, circa 2015, white men no longer poached all the booty; now BIPOC authors sack some trophies too. Progress? Or just a pendulum swing?


Neilson’s musings on CanLitCrit do not constitute a system, for he relies on “taste”—guided by canonical standards and knowledge of forms (classical and pomo)—to pronounce his judgments. Thus, he can revise his opinions—even within a review—as he feels himself nearing—or being distanced further from—“some kind of universal beauty.” He is not Northrop Frye reborn or Linda Hutcheon redux. Nor are his evaluations irrefutable. His unorthodoxy is, however, irresistible, and his prose—rambunctious, obnoxious, witty, erudite, and philosophically wily—is, likely, imperishable. Neilson’s “Gang of Four” are must-reads, are must-haves, are keepers. Lookit! They are already quadruple in value!

This review “Condition Critical” originally appeared in Canadian Literature, 10 Oct. 2022. Web.

Please note that works on the Canadian Literature website may not be the final versions as they appear in the journal, as additional editing may take place between the web and print versions. If you are quoting reviews, articles, and/or poems from the Canadian Literature website, please indicate the date of access.

Canadian Literature is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for us to earn fees by linking to and affiliated sites.