The Virtues of Poetry.
Can an academic monograph make you tremble and shudder, sweat and cackle, tingle and swell? Can it move you more than any piece of fiction or poetry you’ve encountered in the past year? Before I read The Virtues of Poetry, I didn’t think so.
This is not, however, a typical academic monograph. It lacks the density of most critical texts, and darts recklessly across the canon of English poetry. In this short book, Longenbach discusses Donne, Shakespeare, Blake, Whitman, Pound, Bishop, and many others. Miraculously, the argument never collapses into the cursory.
The book is driven by a sincere reverence for the formal tradition of English poetry. Longenbach suggests that, from the perspective of the ‘radical’ present, “the previous fifty years of poetry almost always seems mannered” (ix). Nonetheless, great poets must engage with the traditions they have ‘overcome’ and no poem is ever completely original. Rather, “The greatest poems we will write already exist, and the work of a lifetime is to recognize them as our own” (15). This is not exclusively a book for poets; it offers much to the casual reader. It is a book all poets who care for their craft could benefit from.
Super Sad True Love Story.
In Gary Shteyngart’s near-future dystopian novel Super Sad True Love Story, the American dollar is “yuan-pegged,” people are measured by “Fuckability” ratings, and the state is run by the unelected “Bipartisan Party.” Protagonist Lenny Abramov is a little lost in this futuristic, hyper-abbreviated world. Lenny is slow to realize that TIMATOV means “Think I’m About to Openly Vomit” and “ROFLAARP” stands for “Rolling On Floor Looking At Addictive Rodent Pornography.” He also harbours an embarrassing passion for printed books. Unfortunately, his girlfriend Eunice loathes the smell of books, and her best friend laments that Lenny “REALLY READS” (147), rather than “scanning” like normal people.
A dangerous trend in current critical discourse views modern technology as inherently harmful to our culture’s language and thinking. Paranoia about the detrimental effects of text-message-speak and social media jargon encourages linguistic elitism and the fetishization of a golden age of literacy that never really existed. While most aspects of Shteyngart’s imagined future seem appropriate, if unsettling, his elegiac dramatization of the decline of language offers little more than unproductive fear-mongering. Shteyngart would do better to stick to the social, sexual, and political critiques that he captures so well in this often brilliant and hilarious novel.
Under the Keel.
Michael Crummey’s poetic strategy is diversion. Through pieces like “Viewfinder,” “Patience,” and “Women’s Work” – prose story-poems told in plain vernacular language – Crummey lulls his readers into complacency. This is nothing more than cultural documentation. We are absorbing scenes of salt-of-the-earth Newfoundland life: lighthouse keepers in Cape St. Mary’s, girls attending washing lines in Corner Brook, a fox on Funk Island. Then revelation stings us from the side: “Bliss lives for bliss alone, / apply yourself to that ephemeral sliver. // You have less time than you think.” These lines, perhaps bombastic on their own, derive their power from the restrained language around them. This wave-like movement characterizes Under the Keel. Spells of modest diction and constrained syntax build towards flashes of amplified lyricism. This dynamic structure gives Crummey a bulwark against sentimentality. Though these poems flirt with the maudlin, they generally avoid it by setting emotionally loaded lines in subtle frameworks. Crummey tempers the “ocean’s sweet nothing” with authentic, subdued voices like this one: “If I’d known it would mean being gawked at by you crowd I’d have told him to put the machine away, sit to a cup of tea like a sensible person. Saved myself all this gabbing.”
David Huebert lives and writes in Halifax. His work has appeared in publications such as Event, Matrix, Vallum, The Antigonish Review, and The Literary Review of Canada. His first poetry collection is forthcoming from Guernica Editions.