On Beauty: Sonnet L’Abbé

Welcome to On Beauty, a series of interviews with poets about their relationship to beauty. For a complete introduction to the project, see the Lemon Hound post published September 21, 2012: Poets On Beauty. The interviews begin here, in volume II of Lemon Hound, with Sonnet L’Abbé. L’Abbé has written two books of poetry, both published by M&S, and featured in Lemon Hound’s homepage slideshow is her concrete poem “Self-Portrait (Mind-Read) as Arabidopsis Thaliana,” which grows out of and with the doctoral work she has been doing, an exploration of  plant-mind metaphors. L’Abbé is one of the most well-balanced and carefully nuanced thinkers I know, constantly reflecting back on her own thinking as she moves forward. (A more complete biography can be found at the end of this post.)

I have asked three questions of each poet taking part in the project:

  • Can you point me toward a poem you find beautiful? In what way do you think of or experience this poem as beautiful?  

  • Do you hope for, look toward, seek out beauty in your work as a poetWhy or why not?

  • Do you hope for, look toward, seek out beauty in other aspects of your life?

 L’Abbé has chosen to respond to all three with a winding, two-part essay:

One of the reasons I was drawn to writing as a young woman was the sense that through writing, I might, without having to show my face, make intelligible my own beauty. Or prove it, perhaps.

Beauty was politicized for me long before I had the sense that through the art of writing, I might address that politicization. I spent my young years in prairie provinces, and after ten grew up in Kitchener, Ontario. Until I hit high school was the only non-white child in every one of my classes. We were all about seven years old, in Calgary, when my classmates began informing me that I was ugly. The message intensified when we moved to Manitoba. A change was occurring in us: we were beginning to see the world the way those around us saw it. Boy and girl were suddenly categories to be rigidly policed; so were pretty and ugly. “Beautiful,” like pretty, went with a certain kind of girl, and in the late ’70s, early ’80s, that girl, for my school “friends,” was white. Some of the boys in my class had gotten the specs on what kind of girl qualified from their own mothers.

I didn’t argue with my classmates. I knew even then that their way of seeing was not something they had been argued or spanked into. They were simply being acclimatized to adore a certain vision of ourselves as themselves. My own six or so years of exposure to North American media had already prepared me, not necessarily to believe my young peers, but to understand that they were still, then, innocent, sensitized by the same images and stories as I was.

Beauty was, as I understood it, the story winners told about themselves. An aestheticization of the doctrine of survival of the fittest. White people, my child mind thought, found blondness and blue-eyedness beautiful because that is what they are. They want to be powerful and so they encourage themselves by finding themselves beautiful.In China, I assumed, the Chinese would also encourage themselves to power, would make images of themselves and call those beautiful. And African stories and art must do the same for black people.

But I was a child in rural Canada; “Black is Beautiful” was an American mantra. Trudeau’s multiculturalism had cleared a space for me to claim Canadian citizenship but had not yet cleared a space for me to claim Canadian beauty. As a child I would go home and look in the mirror and study my own face. I would hold up my hand and stare at the colour of my fingers: I am born in a place that finds this ugly. I knew from small—in part because I have a white father and was very conscious that my “genetic whiteness,” and therefore, in practice, my inherent beauty, was invisible—that to be seen as racially different was a framing by others, similar to being labelled fat or deformed, that depended on consensus around ideal form.

I am suspicious of ideal forms.

The Canada of my childhood seemed to gaze upon me in one of three ways: hostile, with an affect that seemed to me the same as a contempt for contagion; unseeing, blanking me completely as a social entity; or “tolerant,” making me the object of the exercise of liberal adults’ self-congratulation. However, in my home there was another gaze, taught to me by my parents, who had been students at the Ontario College of Art: the gaze of art, which was by definition about beauty, and looking, and cultural ideals. If the gaze of art had once found beauty in voluptuous women with rolls on their hips, or could find it now in grids of black lines punctuated with squares of primary colour, then the gaze of art, I took it, might one day look at me and be able to see my aesthetic—and therefore my social—value. It became an ideal of mine to help shift that cultural gaze.

By the time I began writing seriously, I had already been rewarded for putting my non-whiteness, and the performance of my racialized subject position in relation to national identity, front and centre in my work. The aesthetic tradition of my university instructors was such that the entry of a non-Caucasian identity position into the space of art would always have an exoticized flavor, a kind of freshness and a kind of foreignness, that, as long as it occurred within a recognizably Eurocentric tradition, guaranteed a certain kind of approval. I studied the cadence of the anthologized and laureled Canadian poets and knew that beauty, for them, was a kind of collective agreement around values: beauty was a performance of complex grammar, a show of vocabulary and liberal humanist educational capital, a public rehearsal of anti-intolerance. As long as I mapped my own material, my experience or content, into the recognizable text performance, it would be received as beautiful. I was right, but discovering that I could “perform” this kind textual beauty, by mimicking the existing ideal forms of Canadian lyric verse, left me somewhat empty.

My move toward a practice of innovating with poetic form does not, of course, move me outside Eurocentric tradition, for the avant-garde is always already all up in that, but I like the idea of interrogating form, of historicizing form, of playing with it to suit my ideals. I’m aware that my taste is informed by my education and environment; and I’m all about foregrounding my anxiety of influence, in a kind of girl-Caliban way.

Writers who argue that there is such a thing as writing “simply” to pursue the beautiful or to create new forms, as though it is an alternative to “political” poetry, seem to me hungry to inhabit their own place in the existing order. These poets’ apparent lack of anxiety (even, or perhaps especially, if all they want to do is write a meditation on the way that light falls on a blade of grass) about participating in a practice that, in essence, legislates ideal form by example, will always be a little scary to me. But only in the way that anyone who refuses to look at their own exercise of privilege is a little scary.


A Fractal_0001

 (“A Fractal” © Christian Bök 2003, from the collection Crytallography, reproduced by permission of Coach House Books and Christian Bök.  To buy a copy of Crystallography, see Coach House Books. )

I find some of Christian Bök’s work to be staggeringly beautiful. This poem works for me with a kind of mathematic elegance. It achieves a beauty of design, a precision and simplicity that appeals—as the title asserts—fractally. Like a piece of Baroque music, it is all pleasing proportion and symmetry. It is a spatial pun that teases consciousness with the supradimensionality of visually represented language. The question of why it pleases is like the question of why the ear hears notes an octave, or a major fifth, apart as pleasing. Our bodies tune to such proportions of frequency.  Something in us is pleased by rhyme: whether it be of note, tone, or shape, or gesture, and wants to repeat it. Even if we have an explanation for this – for example, deciding that pleasure in resonance helps us somehow survive as a species—there is still no explanation for the mystery that Bök’s poem helps us experience, of pleasure itself.

What the Bök poem seems to “leave out” is the historical and political contexts of English-language lettered authority, with its history of marginalizing female and extra-European perspectives, in which their writing, and any piece of English language writing in any discipline, occurs. If poetry is an attentiveness to language, for me it cannot be a fully realized attentiveness if it is not practiced in conversation with the ways language has been used to affirm certain ‘resonances’ and deny others—language dissents, legislates, mathematizes, authorizes and defines.

Bök’s work has little to say about its own position vis-a-vis the politics of ethnocultural or gender representation within the Canadian literary community. It does however, engage the discourses of biology, computer science and physics, in a way that I see as similar to any margin-to-centre appeal in the political game of representing truth. For me, the potential for Bök’s poem to expose the aesthetics of scientific writing, and the power relations that mean the authority of science depends on the “irrationality” of art, raises the poem from mind-candy to a potential act of beauty.

Wislawa Szymborska’s poetry is consistently beautiful to me because she achieves the same sort of tonal balance and musical cadence that pleases, and that might be enough for “pure” aesthetes to call beautiful, and her work demonstrates consciousness of those tonal balances and cadences as political objects. I had a horror of much of the distinctly unpleasant “political” writing that I read in classrooms. These poems were taught from the perspective that writing that displayed a self-consciousness of language as an ideological apparatus, or that argued for certain kinds of cultural representation, was inherently worth reading. I am sympathetic to that stance. However, I often did not enjoy reading that work. Perhaps the claim for such writing was never beauty anyway. It was important even if it was not beautiful. But it is a challenge for a work of art to be effectively important if it is not pleasing, for the pleasing-but-unimportant is simply, well, more pleasing. I was about to write that I’d rather read the important stuff, even if it was unpleasant, but that’s exactly it: I’m human; I wouldn’t.

So when a work is both pleasing (complex and proportionate tonally, visually, etc) and has something to offer me around the political complexities of language practice, and around the political field of the beautiful, as Szymboska’s does, then I feel I am in the presence of beauty. I can say I strive for that in my own work.

(Read Symborska’s poem “Children of Our Era” )

Sonnet L’Abbé
is the author of two collections of poetry,  A Strange Relief and Killarnoe, both published by McClelland and Stewart. Her most recent work has been included in Best Canadian Poetry 2009 and 2010 and was shortlisted for the the 2010 CBC Literary Award for poetry. L’Abbé is currently doing doctoral work at UBC, writing a dissertation on plant-mind metaphors in the work of American poet Ronald Johnson. She has taught writing at the University of Toronto’s School of Continuing Studies and now teaches creative writing at UBC’s Okanagan campus. L’Abbé also is a regular reviewer of Canadian fiction and poetry for The Globe and Mail.


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