Monday, 13 October 2014

What's the Function of Poetry?

Troy Jollimore thinks the question is wrong.
What’s the function of a pop song? You like it; you listen to it; it sounds good. What’s the function of a good meal? You could say, anything that has nutritional value, but that’s the false virtuous answer—you can get nutrition from something that doesn’t taste good at all. You can say you get pleasure, but I don’t think that’s the function; I just think that’s what I like about poems, that they give pleasure. And I do think one of the wonderful things about poems—I mean, we’ve been talking a lot about what makes them hard to write, why they’re so hard and so on, but one good thing about poems which makes it easier to write is that there is no one thing they have to do. You can start off writing a poem you think is going to make people cry and it turns out to be really funny and it makes people laugh and you don’t have to throw it away; you can say, “Okay, great, I wrote something that makes people laugh, that works too. I wrote something that sticks in somebody’s mind for whatever reason, that makes them think about it and recite lines back to themselves and want to go back and read the poem again. Great.” There’s many different ways a poem can accomplish that and I think all of them are valid. What are poems for? They exist to enrich our lives. I mean, imagine life without music and without poetry, and no stories, no films—it would be pretty dreadful and boring. Art is here to make things more interesting.

The Church Poet

Shane Neilson wonders if M. Travis Lane's reputation as a Christian poet has harmed appreciation of her work:
[B]y choosing to write about religious themes, Lane faces a problem that any poet would face: she is often ignored. As Eliot wrote, “For the great majority of people who love poetry, ‘religious poetry’ is a variety of minor poetry.” Yet Lane is special: a major poet who bucked the trend away from religion. She stubbornly took it on, along with any number of other subjects. Stubbornly, she wrote well on topics few are disposed to read. Lane’s natural gifts with image, sound, pacing, and argument took on the challenge of writing spirit as poetry. Despite these formidable gifts and the successfully met challenge, Lane’s not received her due.

Sunday, 12 October 2014

Sunday Poem

After mother scarpered
it was ship’s biscuit
with shrapnel sparkles. 
It was hot spurts and gristle
and cold snaps with a wet towel
for stealing a puff from dad’s fag 
or sneaking a peek at his titty mags.
But we buggers deserved no better.
It was us that made her run off, 
with our bickers and our bungles.
It was our bloody cheek.
It was his bleeding knuckles.
From Inheritance (Biblioasis, 2014) by Kerry-Lee Powell 

Saturday, 11 October 2014

This Particular Book

Writing about one of his prize possessions—a first edition of William T. Vollmann's The Rainbow Stories (1989) signed over to a pathologist named Dr. Lester Adelson—Michael Lapointe assesses the power of certain ghost-ridden objects to take over our imagination:
When I read the inscription, or hold The Rainbow Stories in my hands—in fact, when I simply see its spine on the shelf, and am reminded of it—I envision a young Vollmann and an old Adelson, the prolific emerging writer and the storied, perhaps secretive pathologist, keenly observing the dissection of a corpse. Perhaps the horrific sensibility is more important than value-neutral accuracy, because I smell formaldehyde, and see the cold, diagnostic light of the room, and the silver scalpel, and it might seem, in this moment, that I'm being drawn backward in time. But in reality—that is, in my imagination—it's the memory of this peculiar moment, a memory housed in this particular book and nowhere else, that is drawing forward, toward me.

Friday, 10 October 2014

Tweet of the Day

Monday, 6 October 2014

Acts of Recuperation

For Melissa Dalgleish, the fight to keep alive the reputations of Canada's key female modernist poets (like Dorothy Livesay, above) is one of the essential battles of our literature:
Livesay died in 1996. [Anne] Wilkinson died long before, in 1961. Jay Macpherson, a contemporary of both and the subject of my doctoral research, died in 2012. All three were among the foremost writers of their generations, but for all three (and for most of the female poets of Canadian modernism, with the possible exception of P.K. Page) reading the body of criticism about their work reveals something strange and important. Like [Joan] Coldwell, very many critics view their critical work on these women and their writing as an act of recuperation. The fundamental impulse behind much of it is not to reveal something noteworthy about style, or relationship to historical context, or use of language, or community formation in the modernist period, although that happens along the way and often as justification for recuperation. The core message—implicit or explicit—is that the work of these women is on the verge of disappearing from the world, from our critical consciousness, and has been on that verge for a very long time. This criticism, written by those like Kaarina [Mikalson] and I who care deeply about this work and advocate strongly for its importance, fights to keep the work of these writers from disappearing from the world, from our understanding of what it was like to to be a woman writer in the 30s, 40s, 50s, 60s, from the matrilineage of writing by and about women that forms a chain that leads right to the present.

Saturday, 4 October 2014

Is Experimental Poetry Funny?

Absolutely, say Jonathan Ball and Ryan Fitzpatrick. In their introduction to the anthology Why Poetry Sucks, the two editors try to define—as a partial reply to one of my remarks—the special characteristics of "avant" humour:
Carmine Starnino, constant critic, has declared that “humourlessness” is “the most galling failure of our current crop of experimental phenoms” in an essay otherwise surprisingly generous to experimental phenom bpNichol. Complaints like Starnino’s are common and, in many ways, true. While poetry as a cultural activity is funny, and the idea that we should take poetry seriously is funny, actually taking poetry seriously isn’t very funny at all—and neither are most poems.

At the risk of not being funny. we should complain that Starnino is correct only in a technical sense. Humourlessness is the most galling failure of experimental poets, because it is the most galling failure of poets and poetry overall. We balk at Starnino’s implicit suggestion, which is that experimental poetry is, in a general sense, more humourless than conventional poetry. In fact, when conventional poetry is funny, it is often funny because it has incorporated lessons from experimental poetry (usually, earlier avant-gardes). Often, these avant-garde movements and authors take themselves seriously, or too seriously, but then lighten up and begin to fall into self-parody as their assumptions and techniques are incorporated (or mocked) by the mainstream—Surrealism is the most obvious example. More recently, we have seen the opposite trajectory with the American post-avant Flarf writers, who began by parodying bad conventional poetry but ended up taking the joke more seriously and more politically as bad conventional poetry became a primary way to address the national trauma of 9/11.

In other words, galling humourlessness is not a defining trait of experimental poetry—the work is often intentionally funny, because it uses humour in particular ways, or unintentionally funny, due to its relative strangeness or how removed it seems from something we should take seriously. As a result of its emphasis on attentive and playful work with the material of language, experimental poetry may even have a different, perhaps closer, relationship to humour
Michael Lista isn't buying it:
When, in high school, I briefly took a comedy class at Second City, our teacher got right to it and explained how jokes work: “Working from the Lacanian idea of the point de capiton or quilting point, the idea that meaning is retroactively determined by the final word in a statement, Alenka Zupancic frames the punch line in terms of this Lacanian operation.” JK — no, that was written by Ryan Fitzpatrick and Jonathan Ball, in their introduction to Why Poetry Sucks: An Anthology of Humorous Experimental Canadian Poetry … an essay that I’m confident is the least funny thing ever written about what makes things funny. There’s only one rule in comedy and every comic knows it: Never explain your jokes using 
Lacanian psychoanalytic theory and/or Baltic post-structuralism. You should sooner try getting turned on listening to an artificially intelligent garburator explain the mechanics of oral sex—in German. 
He continues:
What makes humour work—how to elicit the laugh that’s utterly immune to explicative theory—is diametrically opposed to what unites many of the experimental poets in Why Poetry Sucks, a suspicion of meaning-making. With the bathwater of form went the baby of sense. But Fitzpatrick and Ball try to square the circle with—you guessed it—theory. “Both the joke and poetry,” they argue by way of Victor Shklovsky, operate “by making our language and our social operations strange. Thus, defamiliarization is, arguably, the basic gesture of poetry.” Both poetry and humour “estrange us from language and its transparent, communicative capacity.” Some poetry, maybe, but never jokes, which are as likely to elicit a laugh this way as by a tickler who doesn’t believe in touch.
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