Old Hats, New Heads

Reviewed by Philip Miletic

In the past couple of decades there has been an increasing tendency in both Canadian and American writing––but certainly not all––to resist a cynical scepticism towards language, a renewed interest in the common, the cliché, and the old(er) poetic forms. This turn looks towards the past and tradition to revitalize the new and to re-examine the old; it looks towards the quotidian to free language from commercialization and return language to the people.

Rob Winger’s Old Hat opens with a list of everyday cliché phrases, but these phrases are ever so slightly tampered with. Winger’s appropriative play with the quotidian commercial signage removes the commercialism from the language. The poem ends with “It’s the know of the world as we end it,” drawing attention to the need of the continual restoration of language to resist its limitations on the world. The opening poem sets the tone for Old Hat, sifting through and exploring the tensions that arise when limitations are set on our knowing the world. In “Southern Ontario Stereoscope,” a key poem inOld Hat, Winger uses the metaphor of the stereoscope to describe the Southern Ontario landscape, overlaying places of memory with places in the present. The poem is not necessarily one of lamentation, of a past natural landscape gone; it is rather a landscape that is “almost gone” but that can be preserved in writing. The Ontario landscape is renewed, in this sense; the past is set in writing, but the writing of the past also re/sets the present, renewing the Canadian landscape as well as preserving an older, sentimental, nostalgic landscape. Winger’s poetry, revelling in the old clichés of Canadian literature, is refreshingly beautiful, humorous but illuminating, providing an “open door” to language and to the Canadian landscape rather than a closed-off space that suffocates.

In Glad and Sorry Seasons, Chandler does not look towards old phrases and words but to older poetic forms. Chandler is meticulous in her exploration the rondeau, the triolet, the pantoum, the Sapphic stanza, the sonnet, and more. The sheer number of these forms can be overwhelming and disorienting, weakening the cohesiveness of the book. Yet, Chandler’s mastery of these forms, her allusions to other poets, and her translation of five French Canadian and five Spanish American poets make Glad and Sorry Seasons a book of poems about poetry, specifically Chandler’s love for poetic forms as evidenced by “Sonnet Love.” Yet, the strength of Chandler’s return to these forms is more than homage, it is revision, revising the patriarchal discourse and “ownership” of older poetic forms and highlighting the constraints and criticisms of women poets who are consistently left out of the “canon”: “They seem to sense I’m not one of them; / I’m much too serious, too plain.” Despite the lack of cohesiveness of Glad and Sorry Seasons, Chandler boasts a strong collection of poetry that presents an argument for a return to older poetic forms to further explore the experiences of women and women writers in the present.

Owen Percy’s introduction to Tom Wayman in The Order in Which We Do Things contains a sentence that resonates with the previous poets mentioned: “what is new in the new work writing is in fact what is old––the fact that we work.” This new introduction seeks to re-introduce Wayman to a newer generation and provides a strong collection of Tom Wayman’s “new work writing,” with its focus on the mental and physical effects of labour and labour conditions, the integration of working class politics, and Wayman’s admiration for and affiliation with the working class individual. The collection confidently boasts Wayman’s belief and faith language can shape our knowledge and experiences in the world. This stance is most explicit in the humorous “Postmodern 911,” wherein the speaker attacks an academic who professes “that neither language nor history permit / definitive statements or authorities.” Wayman demonstrates a disdain for a postmodern aesthetic, and The Order presents an argument for poetry’s involvement in and connection to the social world.

Each of the poets looks towards old forms, whether these forms be language itself, poetic forms, or the forms of work. They see in the old a reflection, and, as Winger writes, “the reflection there / might tell me something new.” The old hat, the old cliché, the old form carries the potential to reflect on the present, and through that process of reflection something new and beautiful is created.

This review “Old Hats, New Heads” originally appeared in Recursive Time. Spec. issue of Canadian Literature 222 (Autumn 2014): 137-38.

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