Carmine Starnino: Steampunk Zone

In our mashup-mad era, we yearn for unpigeonholeability. We don’t want to be different. We want to be weird. We want to be total category-killers. As a result, it’s hard to find a poet – free-versifier and formalist alike – who doesn’t believe at heart that he or she is far too heterodox to be trapped in existing definitions of traditional and experimental. Contemporary poetry now comprises a vast invented form: the godknowswhat.

That the selections in Best Canadian Poetry in English 2012 echo and reprise this yearning should come as no surprise. From Rachel Lebowitz’s unnerving, nursery rhyme-inflected prose cycle (‘Cottonpolis’) to Robert Earl Stewart’s smoky, image-loaded stream of consciousness (‘A Wind-Aided Fire’), this book is a mixed bag. It’s the outcome, one might say, of a collective decision taken by Canadian poets to dart in all directions at once. To be sure, I plucked these poems from print and online journals with no bias except to find verse that provided a fresh entry into reality; that offered something, some equivalence between sound and feeling, I didn’t already know, or couldn’t find elsewhere. Good poets are stylists, and I hunted for styles whose distinctive qualities generated memorable insights. Yet, when assembled, many of the one-of-a-kind elements I admired – which each seemed unexpected, an emergency measure – turned out to share the same triggers. It made me uneasy. Don’t misunderstand: these are wickedly good poems. But the task of finding them has forced me to reflect on the high price of writing under the influence of what F.R. Leavis would have called our ‘poetical modes’.

On my desk, sit three squat anthologies from three countries: Identity Parade edited by Roddy Lumsden, published in the UK; American Hybrid, edited by David St. John and Cole Swenson, published in the US; and Open Field edited by Canadian Sina Queyras. All appeared within the last seven years. To read them, close on the heels of one another, is to be left agape at the current scale of Anglo-American verse. The books add up to 1200 pages, nearly one-thousand poems and comprise almost two-hundred poets from three countries. And that’s only as far as these three tomes will let us see: there’s a good deal more out there. One recalls Ian Hamilton’s observation, back in 1994, that English poetry ‘can no longer be thought of in the singular’. The shift, he argued, was from poetry to poetries. The fissioning has since escalated until, at present, English-language poets all seem to speak in tongues. Everywhere we’re overrun by franchises of self-defined difference. To a certain extent, this is bardoltry as usual. Good poets have always tried to stand apart from their literary age. But today that individualism, to be accordingly recognized, needs to pay fealty to a period that has scrambled easy classifications. And what does such a period demand of our poems? Boundary-crossing, genre-splicing, exploratory flings between once-irreconcilable techniques. There may no longer be a generally endorsed sense of what constitutes poetry, but almost everyone agrees on what a poet needs to do in order not to be left behind. Thanks to the internet, even national identity is growing increasingly irrelevant as cultural trends continue to be erased by a global synching-up of motives. Identity Parade surveys the ‘pluralist’ generation of British and Irish poetry, American Hybrid showcases American models of ‘hybridization’ and Open Field nets Canadians who reveal a ‘particular blend of formal and innovative work’. English-speaking poets may be separated by a border and an ocean, but the zeitgeist has assigned each of us the same thesis.

Canadian poetry seems ideally suited to this era. Its masterworks, such as Irving Layton’s ‘A Tall Man Executes a Jig’ or A.M. Klein’s ‘A Portrait of the Poet as Landscape’, have always been marked by a glorious miscegenation of influences; or, to use Peter Van Toorn’s words from his 1985 book Mountain Tea, ‘there’s always a carnival voice /calling you inside to see the choice /of goods usually hawked at the honeyed /gates of paradise’. Heeding this carnival voice has turned the recent scene into a teeming bazaar, where younger poets proudly wear the bright, patchwork clothes of their cosmopolitan nurturing. But something else defines this group. They are the first generation for whom the battle lines of mainstream versus avant-garde (what an earlier time dubbed ‘cooked’ and ‘raw’) have outlived their usefulness. The intense need to set free a shifting sense of self has helped produce the unusual range of devices in this book: intricate puns, up-to-the-minute slang, scat-singing wordplay, many-sided metaphors. These devices are brandished by poets who have not only come out the other side of the poetry wars, but aspire to heal the divisions in their poems. We see this in the cerebral, cubist elegance of Lisa Robertson’s ‘Scene’ or the flagrantly self-conscious, gear-switching rhymes of Shane Rhodes’ ‘The Paperweight’ or the ludic largess of Adam Dickinson’s ‘Call to Arms’. These poets belong to a circle that aggressively resist schools, unsettles assumptions and crossbreeds near-infinite varieties of form, from rhyme-rich free verse to mishmashes of lyric and found texts.

Two recent debuts can serve as examples. In Crabwise to the Hounds (2008), Jeramy Dodds specializes in densely metaphoric accounts (surrealist tall tales? Gothic head trips?) that would look right at home in experimental lit mags like The Capilano Review or Rampike. But the book also flashes some serious formalist cred, with Ormsbyesque passages that nestle enthusiastically into their internal rhymes, assonances and alliterations (‘Capillaries are winter maples scrubbing the mist’ or ‘Shipwrights shoulder-pole /bedrolls and Swede-saws /through a cellophane of rain’). Which is it? Which faction does Dodds belong to? Who knows. It’s how poets like him confound that commands our attention. Linda Besner also fails to fit. Her poetry marries a maniacal love for oddity with a loathing for recycled language. One standout in The Id Kid (2011) is ‘Villeneuve Villanelle’ in which Besner, who lived in polyglot Montreal for many years, draws on Canada’s double heritage of French and English to devise an argot that evades ordinary prose syntax. In the process, she orchestrates an entirely original soundscape:

A van, verily, une livraison, l’avenir arrived d’ailleurs, a day

avowed comely, lueur d’avril bespoke, bespilled – ça brille.

L’imprévu s’avance impervious; appears apace, s’est envolé.

A novice driver, évidemment. One virage rapide, and all bouleversé,

an avalanche of navel oranges devant la fruiterie.

A future in delivery, vraiment. Moreover, this arrival – le camion, la journée

grand évenement for the vagrants pocketing oranges à volonté,

poursuivi by the vainglorious vendor, à petit avail. Ainsi,

unforeseen advances; une apparition imperméable that vite blows away.

Une idée, maybe, of ivied-over avenues à suivre, asway

with lilas, novelistic verandas. Rossignols. Lily-of-the-valley.

En accouchant, l’espoir. Arriving, d’ailleurs, a truck, a day en verité,

a vaudeville on la rue Villeneuve: thrown oranges, oranges lancées;

flown oranges, oranges volées. Runnelling nuance d’après ceci:

une proposition inattendue; ghost in a raincoat, échappé.

Abundance, rolling. Une voie beloved d’agrumes, ravished d’abeilles.

And attendant aux feux, unbeknownst to driver, fruitman, sans-abris:

a van, verily. Une livraison, l’avenir arrived d’ailleurs – a day

imprévu s’avance impervious. Appears apace; then envolé.

One could argue, with justification, that Besner is simply reinventing a traditional form. But the poem also struck the soi-disant experimental poet Sina Queryas, who wondered on her blog if ‘the way this poem is built might be similar to the way a conceptual poem is built’. Queryas’ question exposes the grey zone many brash arrivers – Michael Lista, Joshua Trotter, Leigh Kotsilidis among them – now thrive in. It’s a steampunk zone: populated with lavishly anachronistic, retro-futuristic inventions – all creolized, vibrant and often intricate. Steampunk was popularized by speculative works of fiction like William Gibson’s The Difference Engine (1990) and Neal Stephenson’s The Diamond Age. In those books, gadgets of the future are grafted onto Victorian sensibilities and vice versa. (Imagine Longfellow augmented by Bluetooth or nanobots in coal clouds.) Our younger poets practise a similar ‘path not taken’ creativity, defined by salvage and customization, neither backward nor progressive. If Canadian poetry were a sci-fi novel, it would take place in 1900 London with robots, goggle-donning hackers, airships, gear-driven computers and zombie hordes.

None of this has led to anything you’d call a revolution, though their poems – with their unpredictability, braininess, wisecracks and backtalk – are glimpses of the exhilarating upside-world Canadian poetry might find itself in when completely free of colonial concerns. This current crop of poets doesn’t seem to suffer anxiety about what they do, what’s allowable, what tone to take. No one loses any sleep over a reader’s confusion. They believe poetry has the power, if not the obligation, to exceed interpretation, and their poems always hunt for larger intellectual frameworks to join (check out the endnotes in their books, which every season grow longer and more esoteric). We once prized homegrown styles cut off from the world. Today the rule is ‘only connect’. No association is too odd or unlikely. Ideas exist in a state of high-spirited hyperlinkability.

As a result, more is going on in Canadian poetry than ever before – more sonnets, sestinas, flarf cycles, centos, erasure poems, plunderverse, uncreative writing, concrete. There is also a lot of what no one likes to admit: fatigue. Who can keep up? And for those who try, how does one make sense of it all? Maybe a better way to address this comes from (of all places) the catalogue bumf for Jacob McArthur Mooney’s 2005 debut The New Layman’s Almanac. As a poet, Mooney is fascinated by questions of decipherability (‘Not the word but the inflec- /tion it presents’), and his poems mull over the results of various kind of reckonings (‘1+1­­−1=1’). The publicity kit picks up on this. ‘As a collection’, we’re told, ‘its primary question is: What are the rules?’ This is an excellent question. Much better than claiming there are no rules or insisting we break the rules. This is because ‘What are the rules?’ assumes the existence of a game. (It doesn’t hurt that it sounds like something uttered by some poor sod – a friend of a friend, roped in at the last minute – as he’s being handed a pile of poker chips.) As it happens, there are basically two kinds of games. Those with rules you need to know before you play them, and those with rules that can only be discovered as you play them. In his indispensable book Questions of Possibility, David Caplan argues that ‘the plurality of alternatives that contemporary poets encounter’ has destabilized our sense of ‘acceptable options’. A circumstance, Caplan says, that ‘makes the poets’ formal choices nearly impossible to anticipate’. In other words: forget what you know. We’ve been invited to a game held together by a set of rules that are self-devised, unique, complex and subject to instant change.

Isn’t this, in a sense, what I’ve always wanted? Yes. It’s been our destiny ever since the mongrel brilliance of E.J. Pratt’s gigantic, fast-paced verse-narratives began appearing one hundred years ago. So why am I glum? Because while our poetry is now home to ravishingly odd confections, and while many of these poems bring me under their spell, they never quite make the sale. I’m a pushover for anything ‘counter, original, spare, strange’, as Hopkins put it. I read such poems for matters of style, of sound. I read to understand why I like what I do, why some poems seem to me more memorable than others. I read, ultimately, to take this knowledge into my own poems. But after a point, after celebrating the explosion of poetic techniques, I have to ask myself: what are all those techniques for, exactly? Jonathan Ball’s Borgesian Clockfire (2010) was an exceptionally interesting book: 77 impossible-to-stage plays (‘The audience enters the theatre. One at a time. As they enter, they are slaughtered. The curtain hangs in mid-air’). Yet a part of me fears this is poetry in the same way short-selling is considered legal: by the skin of its teeth. W.H. Auden once described his dream reader as someone who cherished ‘curious prosodic fauna like bacchics and choriambs’. But bacchics and choriambs are worthless unless they’re intrinsic to the perception that seeks them out; unless they’re essential for minting a specific kind of meaning – a sharpness of feeling, an urgency – that those devices, and only those devices, make possible. Clockfire is Ball’s version of Auden’s bacchics and choriambs. The book is its own nonce form, and as such, a steampunk act of conceptual savvy; a cool idea, well-executed. But is it the by-product of a poet getting into deep trouble? The function of a mind grappling at genuinely felt expression? Am I the only one who found himself impressed, then distressed that I could grasp a great deal about the poems, except why they were written?

I don’t mean to pick on Ball, who is one of our most talented younger poets, but to use his fascinating book to make a larger point: that there’s difference between a game and a poem. Both should be played with as much skill as possible, but a game is played for its own sake, while a poem, and our pleasure in its gambits, depends on the recognition it is saying something true about life. A poem, essentially, is a game with a single price of admission: that its rules aren’t cut off from the sadness, exultation or distress that pushed the poet to fashion those rules in the first place. I’ve reconciled myself to the fact that we’ve moved past poetry as the zero-sum sport Frost called ‘prowess – something to achieve, something to win or lose’. Yet we seem pretty far from the only other option likely to generate memorable work: the clue-gathering Auden called the ‘game of knowledge, a bringing to consciousness, by naming them, of emotions and their hidden relationships’.

A poem, according to Auden’s formulation, comes to a head. It’s a breakthrough into clarity that draws together the maximum information available. This requires us to believe words aren’t just what they do, but what they mean; that form isn’t just an R&D staging area – will popping in this stanzaic shape make the poem more acoustically untypical? – but embodies a sense of responsibility for the effects being created in other minds. Gregory Betts’ The Others Raised in Me (2010) is a collection of 150 poems that cuts and remixes words found in Shakespeare’s Sonnet 150. Matthew Tierney’s The Ides uses software to record twenty seconds of audio from the radio, which he then transcribes onto an Excel spreadsheet and tags according to various criteria. In each case, the results have been fascinating. But what untrendy mystery, what human plight, hope or grief have these projects brought to consciousness? Yes, I get it: the goal, in part, is to escape the trap of the already-done. But even so, what are the stakes? Why should we care? Is all that steampunking being applied to profound ends or merely skin-deep? To be sure, what appears to drive Betts and Tierney is anything but trivial: to rebuild the foundations of the lyric from scratch, to submit their nonpareil concoctions as counterprogramming for the Canadian canon. And yet that strikes me as the easy part; made obvious by the scores of poets doing it. Such poetry is frequently over-deliberate; a didactic version of originality, one that keeps insisting on its novelty. Much of it testifies, at best, to the presence of a creative habit, but not the intensity of art. Diction and syntax are paired up in distractingly pleasant, half-lucid marriages which rarely achieve the organization and intention required for poetry. Umberto Eco has called this drug ‘suggestive verbalism’ and too many Canadian poets are hooked on it. The real game of writing poetry remains the part that rests entirely on a lucky break: the creation of a singular, stand-alone word structure that satisfies emotionally and intellectually while signalling itself as an artifice.

Have our poets been that lucky? Absolutely. I love the backbone Asa Boxer puts into his hunches: he produces uncannily precise images that grow out of his intuitions about sound. If you find yourself unexpectedly moved by Amanda Jernigan lines it’s largely due to the way she has streamlined her statements but doubled their aural weight: everything is sadder because the words are crisper. I marvel over how Nyla Matuk can dress abstractions in sensualized details and how her surrealistic thinking moves crabwise; cross-referring, branching out. What ultimately lingers aren’t her insights – which land cleanly and memorably – but the thought-process whose zigs and zags are their own reward. Or Karen Solie, whose brainy verse-patterns decode emotions to a chill clarity. The result: black humour, a discreetly rich pessimism and a mind in constant, fascinated dialogue with its own disappointments. Bruce Taylor has patented a new genre: the meditative cliffhanger. His poems take the shape of an idea or mood clarifying itself in stages, leaving readers on tenterhooks to find out where he’ll go next. Hairpin enjambment – every line taking a sharp left turn – is the most recognizable suspense-building feature, giving the poems a jaggedly uneven look. Visually, this advertises his quick reflexes, but also a living sense of form: Taylor adds new lines to pull new ideas in, allowing him to continuously refresh what he is thinking. As a result, his poems never feel like they are created top-down, from a concept, but bottom-up, one word at a time.

But, just as often, Canadian poets don’t play the odds as much as stack the deck. As more of them keep one eye on the lyric tradition and one eye on whatever comes next, they increasingly try to force a breakthrough by splitting the difference. The result can be too perfect, as if it were the winner of a contest to compose the ideal hybrid poem. Adam Dickinson has a project called Anatomic: Semiotic Bodies, Chemical Environments for which he plans to subject himself to exhaustive chemical testing. Why does he intend to do this? ‘By making a map of the toxicological and symbiotic circumstances of my body’, he says, ‘I want to then use this information to create methodologies for producing poems’. Whether Dickinson’s ‘methodologies’ will produce good poems remains to be seen, but so unimpeachably does his super-experiment ape the terms of what we now expect from our poems, the venture lives in its own hybridized universe. Indeed, the dominance of the steampunk aesthetic, the easy availability of its procedures, has led to a growing uncertainty about how to discuss such linguistic lab work, or even whether anything meaningful can be said at all. The entrepreneurial spree of poets patenting new forms, and the feeling of optimism and copiousness that accompanies it, overwhelms taste. When every poet happens to be writing exactly the kind of poem he or she set out to write, and every poem embodies exactly its theoretical intent, it becomes harder to say which poems are good, and why; how one kind of recombining and estranging differs from another; what books are truly counter, original, spare, strange.

In practical terms, the situation has left reviewers, editors and anthologists scrambling to describe poems in ways they hope will pique the curiosity of readers. That means, too often, sentences are variations on ‘so-and-so’s poetry exists in the middle ground between tradition and innovation’. Period styles in poetry in other words, beget period styles in poetics. In our case, criticism becomes a kind of catechism, a reiteration of steampunk principles. Take Jeff Latosik who describes Dodds as ‘One half the muscular lyricism of a Ken Babstock or Karen Solie and one half the unfettered linguistic play of a Christian Bök or Margaret Christakos’. Or Rhodes’ publisher NeWest who says he ‘combines moving lyrical poetry with experimental verve’. Indeed, when even an excellent critic like Zach Wells is compelled to characterize Trotter’s poetry as ‘mix[ing] the anti-matter of postmodern language games and shifty subjectivity with the matter of traditional structures and lyric poignancy’ you realize no one is immune. Such explication, however well meant, is so far removed from what the poetry is actually doing that it becomes a way of concealing a vacancy in our thinking. The area between tradition and innovation is an intellectual fiction: you cannot go there to write poems. It doesn’t exist. What does exist is the thousands of ways poets compose with and against the formulas available in English. You cannot, a priori, negotiate a trade-off between round avant peg and square trad hole. One can invent a voice that catches the friction between carefully crafted structure and spontaneous departure. Indeed, the pervasiveness of terms like ‘hybrid’, ‘plurality’ and ‘elliptical’ – or what Ron Silliman calls ‘third-wave poetics’ and Jay Millar calls ‘retro avant garde’ and Queyras calls the ‘avant lyric’ – marks a new conventional wisdom that is part conviction, part guff, part make-believe. And as intellectual thresholds are reduced to practically zero, we are fast approaching a kind of free economy: it costs nothing to blog about these things. God knows it means nothing.

There’s a lovely image in William Gibson’s novel Count Zero (1986) of a sentient computer deep in an abandoned space station, creating beautiful Cornell boxes out of junk. The boxes make it into the hands of admiring art dealers on Earth who are unaware of their provenance. In the same way, Canadian poets generate, as if on automatic, wonderful contrivances from disparate materials. These are poets who care about their poetry and work hard at it. Like watchmakers, they build machines out of the minutest parts; unlike watches, these machines are full of beguiling generosity for errant incidents. But too often we are faced with an artificial intelligence, simulated for believability, not an actual style. Style is what happens when originality becomes indistinguishable from the poem itself. It’s a way of mingling the unfamiliar ‘new’ and the still-compelling ‘old’ so that we can no longer separate them. Style is therefore the result of a voice so grounded in its subject, the effect is not a self-regarding newness but a newness absorbed into the poem, a newness ripening into something effortlessly manifold and available. Such poems may not be the sort fusionists like, but they are the sort real poets write.



Reprinted with permission from Carmine Starnino’s Lazy Bastardism, Gaspereau Press, 2012