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Monday, 28 January 2008

Open Field

CNQ (Canadian Notes and Queries) ran a balanced, if at times robustly critical, review of Open Field this summer last (2007), written by James Pollock. He noted the energy of the editor, and also the surprising, and somewhat disappointing fact that Americans seem almost entirely disinterested in Canadian poets (as this was the first poetry anthology of Canadians published in America for 40 years or more). Pollock singled out a half dozen poets who he felt deserved their place in the book, including, I am pleased to say, myself.

He writes: "I also enjoyed the poems of Todd Swift very much, most of them skillful and moving lyrics in the stoical English tradition of Auden and Larkin .... I am especially attracted to his witty homage to Wallace Stevens. .... How could one not be charmed by such a display of metaphorical inventiveness, particularly if one shares Swift's love for Wallace Stevens (and who doesn't?). Of all the best poets in Open Field, Swift is the one I was least familiar with, and I am grateful to Queyras for bringing him to my admiring attention." The other poets he singles out include George Elliott Clarke and Karen Solie.

As for his question, who doesn't like Wallace Stevens - well, I'd bet the editor of Picador's poetry imprint, for one. You know, Michael Donaghy wrote about his dislike of "poems about poetry" - and surely Stevens' oeuvre consists mainly of that topic. Indeed, Stevens has never been much in favour over here in the UK, for reasons I am currently researching. Mainly, many British critics have mistrusted his "flamboyant" interest in language, often as ornament, his interest in aesthetics (and poetics and theory), and his obvious French influences. From the 1950s on, a sort of bluff indifference, even hatred, of anything too "rhetorical" or self-reflexive has marked the mainstream British approach to poetry - meaning that poet-critics like Mark Ford, who study and appreciate Stevens and Ashbery, tend to be in something of a minority (however enthusiastic) in England.

As Edmund Wilson observed, in Axel's Castle, the English poetic tradition has not favoured a too-intensive emphasis on theoretical musings - most of the poets in the English tradition are rather empirical, even pragmatic. I'd suggest the divide here, often described as mainstream versus experimental is rather more often simply between those interested in theory, or poems-about-poetry, and those who are not. Stevens, of course, is seen as a dandy - and is therefore also not entirely appreciated by the more severe avant-garde practitioners in the UK - his sense of humour, for one, is often seen as too whimsical.

Therefore, followers of the Stevens line, in Britain, such as myself, tend to get very short shrift indeed - seen as too deeply into theory for a no-nonsense Worsdworthian poet (like, say, Heaney) - but far too decadent to be one of the Prynne school. A shame really. Sadly, third parties in the UK don't do that well. Stevens is in such a party. Meanwhile, Pollock ends his review with something of an apt lament: "just and clear-eyed critics of Canadian poetry have their job cut out for them. And we desperately need their services." He could have even cut out the "Canadian" part, or inserted the word "British". Clear-eyed most criticism of poetry ain't.
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