The Porcupine's Quill - February 09, 2007 - 100 Comments

In John Updike's Room

In John Updike’s Room by Christopher Wiseman

Reviewed by Shane Neilson

I must admit to a strange lacunae regarding Christopher Wiseman: I’d never heard of him before this review, which is especially strange considering the blurbs on the back of the book by two non-slouch adjudicators, Carmine Starnino and Don Coles. I was further embarrassed by his bio, which pits him at near the centre of Canadian Literature for decades. (He’s won a number of provincial awards for his poetry, his criticism is celebrated, he was the founding presence behind the University of Calgary Creative Writing program. Well, one can forgive him for that.) Yet, in my defence, he’s never won the big prize – a GG – and so isn’t by default required reading. Furthermore, he is from a different generation than my own. But then so is P.K. Page, still alive, and Shakespeare, who is dead. At any rate, In John Updike’s Room was published by the Porcupine’s Quill, for my money the best press in Canada. I took it on that basis.

It turns out that this is the perfect volume to get me up to speed. This is a Selected Poems, even though it’s not announced as such on its front cover (though the inner fly-leaf admits as much).  It consists of poems from all of Wiseman’s eight books, and also front-loads 18 new poems to whet the appetite of those, unlike me, who are already steeped in Wiseman. It must be mentioned that there is already a Wiseman Selected out there, Postcards Home: Poems New and Selected (Sono Nis Press), but it was published in 1988 and three full-length collections have been released since then. Besides, it’s out of print.

On to the poetry. Wiseman is a playful poet; he casts inanimate objects – like the washer and dryer in “In the Basement” – as having a secret life. But at the same time he’s brutally honest about the world and about himself, like in “Philistine at the Ballet”:

Soon it will be over
And I’ll escape
Awkward, trousers flapping,
Clumping on heavy heels,
I’ll walk the dull grey streets
To my untidy flat,
My monstrously pregnant wife,
And the world I live in.

It’s this alternating tone, this multifaceted ability, that does a rare thing: the poems actually play off of one another. Too often I read poem after poem in collection after collection wherein no thought is paid to juxtaposition. Wiseman has this trick down cold. His poems can be menacing, they can be tender, they can be comic, they can be serious. Theme ricochets off of theme; and I suppose this effect must have been amplified in the individual collections themselves for it to be preserved in a Selected. Each of the poems, though, are similar in one respect: they take a premise – be it the washer and dryer being lovers, be it the Dracula legend – and expound upon it. They use their premises as a launching ground for insight. Often small insight – Wiseman isn’t a master of leaping logic, of transcendence — that’s perfectly suited to the little moments he creates in his poems, little vignettes. For example, in “Dracula,” the poem ends with Wiseman disagreeing with the happy ending of Dracula’s destruction, writing,

No. The story went too far.
For even now, at night, safe
And secret under blankets, I know
The fabulist was wrong, when something
Hideous and familiar appears,
Parting the mists and coming towards me.

Wiseman doesn’t do the obvious thing and argue that Dracula is legend only; he uses the premise that Dracula is real and from there explains the nature of his fear. It’s child-like, of course, but in the way that children have an intact sense of wonder. Wiseman isn’t saying that Dracula will get you; he’s saying that all fear has root cause, and why not trace it back to the stories we tell children, those who are “safe / And secret under blankets”? Which may be saying too much, for the poem is a poem, after all, and not a message. But it illustrates Wiseman’s preoccupations with magical thinking, with “What if?” premises, and with childhood in general.

Perhaps the most arresting poems, though, aren’t the ones borne of imagination. I think the love poems are Wiseman’s true calling. Consider “Past Loves”:

Their bright colours have faded.
One by one they have
Been refined by the years
Until they are no more
Than curious and mingled
Scents, caught only faintly
Yet known for what they are.

Farewell to all of them,
Half-forgotten, but deeply
Part of me, like those flowers
Of a country childhood –
Colesfoot, centaury, loosestrife –
Whose names come back from where
No winters were, or thorns.

It’s a masterpiece. The diction is simple and unassuming; there are no pyrotechnics, no rapidly beating bulging heart. But that makes the emotion that much stronger; the love mentioned begins as “faded” colours, and is then conflated as “faint” scents. But Wiseman has no more of this; this is indeed a love poem. The scents are “known for what they are,” a bold statement, a statement that inverts the initial premise of the poem – a receding marriage or a spent affair – and says, no there is still something here, something important. The second stanza builds on this inversion, this reversal, admitting “farewell” while at the same time acknowledging what they remain, which is “deeply part of me.” And the closing lines are beautiful – even Shakesperean, whom I’ve already mentioned. The love is idealized, it becomes perfect – and the manner of expression is so powerful, one can’t help but agree. Sure, the earlier lines of the poem admitted it nearly gone, but the closing lines refute that entirely. That’s a lot of work to accomplish in such a short piece.

There are many, many more love poems of this quality in In John Updike’s Room, poems divorced from sentiment by skill, poems that affirm love as flawed but worthwhile, poems not afraid to say the way it is while also keeping an eye towards how it could be.

When it comes to technique, Wiseman has an uncluttered style. He’s almost Nowlanian in his directness, in his I-think-this-about-thatness, yet he doesn’t overindulge in his own grand pensees. Unlike Nowlan, Wiseman doesn’t believe that, just because he has written about it, his writings constitute a poem. In short, he usually doesn’t inflict himself on the reader. His poems, minor or major, do some kind of poetic work. It’s true that this is a Selected, and if I were reviewing an individual collection I might not feel similarly. Yet it’s interesting to see how Wiseman navigates the troubled waters of anecdote, infusing in just the right amount of lyric to take what might be considered a rather ordinary description and make it a poem. His playfulness and magical thinking also help in this respect.

It’s also true that Wiseman is a very elegant poet. He’s not particularly enamoured of sound; he doesn’t force words into place. He does write clearly and cleanly, without obfuscation. It’s a mode that he employed from his first book on. I think this is a tightrope – some poets, like Steven Price, fall off on the side of sound. The words run thick like molasses. Other poets, to reuse Nowlan again, fall off on the side of “direct speech” that often sounds banal and empty like a bad paragraph can. Wiseman walks this tightrope. His “unflashiness” in this respect can instead be thought of as very much flashy in the way a tightrope walker can walk a tightrope and you can’t. It’s this seeming absence of craft that is instead an absence of overt craft.

Which is not to say that there isn’t a false step. Some of the poems fail. One could mistake “The Field” as something Nowlan himself could have written to his son Johnny:

That’s where
I saw the Lysander crash,
I tell my son,
when I was about your age.
It came straight down
when I was playing.
There were two men in it,
both killed.

But it’s flat, he says,
just a flat field.
Where’s the hole?

I drive on
hunched tightly around
that scarred place inside me
I can never show him.

Well, this is sentimental in the extreme. We have a father talking to his son about an incident that happened to him as a child. People died. The son questions the father. All of this isn’t particularly offensive until the concluding stanza that is completely unearned. How did the incident “scar” him? Why can’t Wiseman “show” his son why it hurt him? What isn’t said is, I suppose, meant to be implied, but I object to the manipulative way the poem concludes. It is in soft focus, and it doesn’t help that the entire poem’s prosody, qua Nowlan, is slack. Here is an instance where Wiseman falls of the tightrope.

There are other instances. In “To a German Pilot,” Wiseman even becomes mawkish:

You hit no military target that night
but your mission accomplished something
if only that a hundred people would never be
the same. I still dream of you and your black plane.
I dream of the world ending in noise and flame.

Obtrusive rhythm, obtrusive sentiment, obtrusive rhyme (plane/same/flame) – it’s not simplicity, it’s simpleton. It’s demonization. It’s terrible.

But what about the new poems? Well, they mine nostalgia for sentimentality. Wiseman writes of a childless widow in “Margaret Gill’s Quiet Life”:

Or what it took away when that huge sea
One day gulped down her chance to live the way
She hoped, the way, for God’s sake, she’d hoped for,
Pulled from her all her babies and her youth…

The italics are mine, but one wonders how this got past an editor. Poets just have to do better than telegraph such sympathy. And, sadly, there is much more of it to be found. As Wiseman aged, his sensibility aged too, and his poems are more than a little creaky as a result. What do I mean, exactly? Well, consider the concluding lines to “When my Parents Danced the Tango”:

How glad I am they danced clear through the rules!

Fires, lust and daring! My dear lost fools!

Creeeeaaak! Sadly, I’d have to say that it’s past achievement that Wiseman will be remembered for, not the current poems on offer. Wiseman’s earlier reconnasiances into childhood – merciful, monstrous – are here unadulterated nostalgia, a highlight reel of sentimentality. What’s worked best for him in the past – the past – has become his most glaring weakness. What Wiseman needs, emphatically, is an update. Not John Updike. Michael Houellebecq, perhaps.

I’ll conclude by stating that this Selected is an excellent introduction to those, like me, previously ignorant of Wiseman. There are many excellent poems to be found, and there’s a technique on hand – colloquial, familiar without breeding contempt – that would do well to be emulated nowadays. The book is generous in that it’s over 200 pages long. It’s biggest deficiency is that the new poems, meant to rope in Wiseman fans, are abysmal. In them, blood can be “on fire.” Nights can be “wild, hot and noisy.” A woman’s leg is “curved and shapely.” There is a “wall of silence.” I shall now myself become silent.

Shane Neilson is a writer from New Brunswick.


On February 09, 2007, R. Paul said:

Had to stop reading this after the first paragraph.
Too much pretentious claptrap.

So I skimmed the review.

I hate being enticed to skim. But this self-indulgent ‘look at my knowledge’ type of review makes vomit look edible.

And when he ends the review with: “I shall now myself become silent.”  I realize the world would be better off had he begun with that sentiment.

But that’s just my thoughts.

On February 09, 2007, Eric Barstad said:

And it begins?

Let’s keep it civilized, shall we? If you’re going to argue the merits (or lack thereof) of the book or the review, at least back up your statements with thoughtful arguments, rather than “edible vomit.”

On February 09, 2007, R. Paul said:

Hi Eric:

The whole bloody point was I couldn’t read the damn review because it seems to have been posted without going through an editing process.

Accessibility and accountability are two main functions of writers everywhere. When one chooses to pontificate rather than illuminate, it leaves the reader with a bad taste in one’s mouth, akin to the aforementioned vomit.

Poetry is an art, as much as painting, film, and yes, even the odd etch-a-sketch?but it is not the be-all, end-all art form and by being overly protective, or overly pretentious it makes readers avoid such art rather than embrace it.

So if I offend (whomever it may be), it’s because I love?and if it’s not because of love?well then it must be because I am offensive.

But in a civilized manner.

On February 09, 2007, Eric Barstad said:

Hi R. Paul,

Thanks for clarifying. I understand where you’re coming from and what your motivations are. I want to stay away from personal attacks and now, rather than thinking you might have been attacking the review based on the reviewer, I know it’s purely the tone (and lack of editing) that bother you, which is of course fine and valid. I guess I just wanted you to express that.

On February 09, 2007, Alex said:

Oh Shane. Books that win the GG are “by default required reading”?

I thought it was a good review, but I haven’t read this book. Just reading the review, there were places I disagreed with some of Dr. Neilson’s judgments. I had nothing against the line “She hoped, the way, for God’s sake, she’d hoped for.” I might have suggested doing something about the “for God’s sake” but I like the abruptness of the line. While in the masterpiece quoted I thought “Half-forgotten, but deeply / Part of me” a cliche.

On February 10, 2007, Zach Wells said:

I agreed with a lot of things in the review, although I thought that the new poems had more strong work in them than Shane does. The big problem for me was the sheer heft of the volume, which was not justified by the poems themselves. This book could’ve been a terrific showcase for an underappreciated poet’s life’s work, but that opportunity was blown by stuffing too many poems into the book. I’ve pasted in my review of the book from Arc below.

Inadequate editing is a problem in most review fora, print or web. Ultimately the writer has to take responsibility, but it is, after all, an editor’s job to edit.

Christopher Wiseman. In John Updike’s Room. Erin: The Porcupine’s Quill, 2005.

Christopher Wiseman has said that for him “commemoration and clarity” are the crucial functions of poetry. His New and Selected Poems put both qualities on prominent display. Most of the poems gathered here from thirty-five years worth of publication are nostalgic reminiscences, written in a plain style that is eminently easy to grasp. In Wiseman’s best writing, these qualities mingle to form poems that are canny, spare and disarmingly moving in their directness. In John Updike’s Room is also, however, a cautionary tale against the hazards of emphasizing commemoration and clarity over, say, imagination and intensity or music and emotion. In far too many poems, Wiseman fails in his goal to preserve things from the past because he is not sufficiently true to the objects, experiences and people he hustles into his poems and because his language, while clear, is pedestrian. In a few cases, he admits to not really knowing his subjects at all and one is reminded of the Wordsworth lampooned by Lewis Carroll in “The White Knight’s Song.” Wiseman’s poems in this vein are more about the poet’s experience of sublime reminiscence than about his supposed subjects, which are limned in non-specific, throwaway terms. When evocation fails, Wiseman often overcompensates with a prosaic bombardment of dates and facts. Photographs, as gateways to the fading past, figure prominently in this collection, and a kind of sepia tone saturates Wiseman’s often-idealized version of the way things were in “a world of gentleness,/A world of slowness and great courtesy.” A leitmotif of this book is the fugue from ugly present reality into the putative “stupid innocence” of childhood. It would be very easy to let this review go on cataloguing the faults of Wiseman’s book, but this would be an injustice to the clutch of fine poems it does contain. The problem is that, at 224 pages, this “selected” volume has the heft of an overstuffed album. The urge to commemorate can lead the poet to keep things which are perhaps best left in his past and this selection should have preserved, by my estimate, about sixty percent fewer poems than it does. Discipline is required to vet a lifetime’s work and it is precisely formal discipline that makes Wiseman’s best poems tick. His unadorned diction and restrained use of poetic figures make most of the blank and free verse poems seem drably “accessible” to employ the standard epithet of faint praise. When Wiseman uses rhyme and/or a stronger rhythm (particularly in a handful of poems in which he strings a bravura sentence over as many as forty-six lines) to structure his verse, his poems are crisper, more tense, more alive and the strictures of stanza and line seem of benefit in moderating his predilections towards sentimentalized nostalgia. Interestingly, it is the section of new poems and the selection from his most recent book that contain the greatest concentration of strong work. Perhaps as he ages, Wiseman is growing into his vocation as a chronicler of the past.

On February 11, 2007, Shane Neilson said:


  Like your agreeing with much of what I said, I agree with much of what you say. But.

  I let this go uncommented on before, but twice? Your habit of posting an ENTIRE REVIEW opposite mine is more than a little pompous. One wonders about your motivations.
  Please, object away. Write in as to why you agree or disagree on certain points. But your habit of posting entire reviews doesn’t offer alternate criticism; it suggests rampant egotism. There’s no debate; there’s just two voices talking at the same time.

On February 11, 2007, Zach Wells said:

Take it up with Eric, Shane. You might have noticed that after each of the reviews published on the site, he provides links to other reviews of the same book. Many of those links lead to reviews written by me. I review a lot of books.  It so happens that two of the books you’ve reviewed have also been reviewed by me, but not in a place where they can be linked to. I went through the site archives and, yup, they’re the only two such books. Bad luck for you. Sorry. Personally, if there’s anyone out there who’s published a review (or just written one) of any book and wants to share it in these comments fields, I’d like to read it. Even if it’s after my review. After all, reviewing is about the books under review, not the dude commenting thereon. At any rate, it certainly isn’t personal.

On February 12, 2007, R. Puddicombe said:

Neilson is as inconsistent as any average reader. Meeting a poem he likes (Past Loves), he reclines with a little sigh, then resurrects his judgement only enough to second his initial intuitive response. In short, he does not question his reaction to the poem. Likewise, when he encounters a poem he dislikes (The Field), he blows hot, questioning the poem in a way that only reinforces his negative judgement.  Both approaches are solipsistic. Both show off the reviewer’s enormous self regard rather than any insight he may have about the poem. Why does the reviewer not question his response to Past Lives, asking the same kinds of questions that he asks of The Field? Why has the speakers love faded? Why can’t he reveal to us some specific incident to illustrate how it has faded?Don’t tell us, show us?etc.

On February 12, 2007, Shane Neilson said:

Well, at least I’m accorded the respect of an “average” reader. Come to think of it, I think that’s where it’s at.
  But since R. is encouraging me to ask questions, perhaps I’ll start with a basic one: just what is it that he means? I’m told to question what I like as well as what I dislike. (A little confusing, the “Likewise” of his comment. But much else, too.) Well, I do try to explain both my likes and dislikes, but the process Puddicombe proposes seems to me to be akin to explaining my non-like of like and my dislike of like. It’s, um, “like” explaining the blackness of white, and the whiteness of black. I like something because I like it, not because I dislike it, and some questions are impertinent because they are irrelevant. Poems are meant to be visceral; we are meant to assent to the good ones. They trammel over the deconstructionist approach, they murder suspicion. The proof is in the Puddicombe, so to speak. Or: I call them as I see them- but all solipsistic reviewers do.
  I will concede, however, that every poem deserves a cold eye: but R. takes all the fun out of it: he blows cold. Now that I mention it, I also “like” to think that I don’t just breathe hot, but that I breathe fire. But perhaps that’s solipsistic. Zach and I agree on this: in Canlit, and on this board especially, discourse seems to come down to personality and not argument. Have opinion, will misconstrue as self-aggrandizing or worse.

On February 13, 2007, Zach Wells said:

But Shane, “Breathing Fire” isn’t always a good thing; sometimes all it gets you is Crazier and aLone.

Mr. Puddicombe, if you object to superficiality in criticism, it’s probably best not to indulge in speculations about the self-aggrandizing imperatives of the author. Even if these do exist, they are beside the point. What matters is what is said and how well, not how and by whom. Reading and writing are inherently solipsistic activities, so saying that someone who is writing about reading is solipsistic isn’t much of an insight, is it?

Does anyone have anything to say about the subject of this review? Has anyone read the book or anything else by Wiseman? If so, could we talk about it, instead of, or alongside, the reviewer’s response to it?

On February 13, 2007, Alex said:

Hmmmm. Well, I think the reviewer’s response in itself is a valid subject to discuss. It would, of course, help if you’ve read the book. But I haven’t.

The only two books of poetry I’ve read recently were Nick Thran’s Every Inadequate Name and Clifford’s The Book of Were. They were both pretty good. I guess I’ll have to wait until you review one of them before I can have anything meaningful to add.

I never could find There, there in any stores.

On February 13, 2007, Zach Wells said:

Did you order it? Not many stores carry a lot of titles by poets from outside the store’s region.

Yeah, I quite enjoyed both those books, too, tho Wayne Clifford’s a friend of mine. Saw Thran read in Toronto a couple months ago.  It was a good reading. He’s got a lot of talent and he’s way ahead of where most poets are at his age (or at any age for that matter).

Weren’t you giving away Wiseman as a trivia prize at Goodreports a while back? Not tempted to peek, huh?

I’m not saying that the reviewer’s response is an invalid subject (obviously, as I’m discussing it), but it’s very easy to use speculation about his motivations and character traits as a dismissal of the whole review rather than engage with what’s being said. The appeal is far more to emotion than intellect, far more ad hominem than ad dictum. One of the people in this thread even admitted to not reading all of the review, which really isn’t that long, after all. (I won’t hazard a guess about his motivations, but I will say it pretty much discredits his response.) While there could well be a flaw in the editing of the piece, I think it’s stupid to jump all over the character of its author.

On February 13, 2007, R. Paul said:

I do not understand how not reading the whole review discredits my response when the reason for my response is because I couldn’t stomach reading the whole review.

That, even to a blind man, would indicate something is not right.

Here’s the basic thing?
I am trying to read beyond simple fiction and biographies, open myself to other forms of literature, but every time I get into poetry it instantly becomes this elitist argument?

No wonder poets get a bad wrap, they are the mimes of literary world to the masses and you people are buying the makeup and the unitards.

I have read a fair share of reviews on this site and been very quiet as it has all been hit and miss, much like anything else?but this review just seemed to reek of the worst pretense. Despite your best beliefs?poetry is akin to music and can be appreciated by the masses?

But if you choose to follow the darker, insipid path of being celebrated by a small crowd of crones at the local library for your personal and emotional insights?feel free, load up on the tea and scones, that’s your business.

Besides, you have to admit, this has been a much more interesting thread than usual?

On February 13, 2007, Alex said:

I can’t figure out the argument here. I gather you are saying that it is today’s poetry in general, not this review, that is elitist. You have tried to read poetry and can’t get into it. Hence poets deserve their “bad wrap” (sic). In addition to all that, you despise this review because it is elitist and pretentious as well. Or at least you thought the first paragraph was, because that’s all you read. You think poets and their reviewers should be more accessible to “the masses.”

This isn’t very interesting.

On February 13, 2007, R. Puddicombe said:

The proof is in the Puddicombe! Zinger, Dude! I can understand why my response confused you; it confused me when I read it again this morning. I can only say I was rather high at the time. I agree that a good poem should provoke a visceral response in the reader, but that should not be the final response from the book reviewer or critic. It is human nature for pleasure to kick in when one encounters something one likes; it is an automatic response?mmmmmm, I like this. Liking something does not lead inevitably to the conclusion that the thing in question is either good in and of itself or good for you. Baboons, the darlings, will eat fermented fruit until they fall over drunk. I may like whiskey, I may like weed, I may like an Alden Nowlan poem (usually when I’m hung-over, depressed, vitamin depleted or otherwise mentally drained), but the fact that I like any or all of these things does not make any or all of them good in and of themselves, nor does it make them good for me. I must stop for breath. Heavens, I sound as if I’m promoting Health and Fitness poetry. I’m not.  But yes, I was asking you to defend your likes and dislikes. And you did try (bless you) in your review, though your attempts were of the common variety, biased toward your own pleasure rather than to some objective standard rigorously enforced. You assert, correctly, that a reader should have a visceral response to poetry, i.e. a highly subjective response. The next part in the process for the book reviewer or critic is to be as objective about that response as is possible and that means asking the same tough questions of your likes as you do of your dislikes. When I read your review I wasn’t convinced that you were as rigorous in your appraisal of Past Lives (I found the poem almost Georgian in its diction and setting and wholly lacking in the specifics that you ask for elsewhere in your review)  as you were in your appraisal of The Field. As one (i.e. you) who has frequently called for higher standards of reviewing in your country, I find your practice in this area uneven, at least in this review. I’m all for high standards in reviewing. To that end, I am steeling myself for the launch of my new website http://www.reviewthereviewer.com . The site will allow readers to review any published review. I’m still on the fence about whether I should invite authors to review reviews of their books. It could be juicy. The site will give me ample chance to indulge my solipsistic tendencies as well as promote my first collection of poems (“Madam Curly*,” forthcoming from Oscar Press, Wellington, in 2008). But enough about me. I shall now myself apply duct-tape to my speaking hole!

*Kiwi slang

On February 13, 2007, Zach Wells said:

R. Paul,

Like Alex, I’m struggling to understand just what it is you’re arguing for and against. I agree with you that there’s no reason non-specialists can enjoy poetry and have met many in my travels who do. But if you read REVIEWS of music (or film, or dance), you’ll find that a lot of them are full of specialised terminology (as distinct from bafflegab jargon) and references to other work in the same field and, yes, to the reviewer’s knowledge, or lack thereof, of what’s what on the scene. I’m not saying it’s perfect, but that’s what Shane’s review does. . Where precisely do you find it pretentious?

Poetry is really no different from other art forms in that some of it can be enjoyed by a diverse group of people and some of it can only be appreciated by a very small group of people. The person who has a technical knowledge of the craft is going to appreciate poetry (or music, or dance, or film) in a different, probably deeper, but no more or less legitimate way. That doesn’t make the cognoscenti “elitist”, which is a stupid, near meaningless term of abuse that should be put out to pasture.

I find it very interesting, and amusing, that here we have two people taking hacks at Shane’s review, one of whom finds it too elitist, while the other finds it too common. Hm. [Pauses, takes a long toke from his roach.] Everything’s, like, relative, man. Or, as The Dude put it so eloquently in The Great Lebowski, “Yeah, well, that’s, like, just your opinion. Man.”

Now, I’m not crazy about the kind of criticism that turns poetry into some kind of arcane code requiring years of monastic study to decipher, nor do I think much of the kind of poetry that prompts such criticism. Maybe in a very technical sense, this is elitist art. But I prefer to call it tedious.

Anyway, Wiseman is miles away from anything you might call elitist. On the obscurity/accessibility scale, where 0=impossible to parse and 10=easily paraphraseable, Wiseman’s an 11, which is a very intentional part of his aesthetic credo, which can be read here: http://www.library.utoronto.ca/canpoetry/wiseman/write.htm. According to an elitist/populist approach to poetry, where elitist=bad and populist=virtuous, Wiseman’s king; reverse polarity and he’s a hack. But accessibility is not the be-all and end-all of poetry, or any other art. I don’t “get” music because I can’t read it or play it, I’m totally tone-deaf and I really don’t know very much about it. For me, music is totally inaccessible. But I still have strong responses to it, and to a wide range of techniques and styles, responses that are often more nuanced than “like it” or “hate it.”

For most people who say “I don’t like/get poetry” all this means is that they haven’t encountered poetry that appeals to them. Quite often they’ve been turned off poetry by the way it’s taught in school. But it’s as weird a thing to say as “I don’t like/get music.” It’s so vague as to be meaningless. Heavy metal, acid jazz, Wagner, country, okay. But music? Poetry is similarly heterogeneous. I once recommended a buddy of mine, an accountant who is not at all involved in the poetry world, read Stuart Ross’s Selected Poems because I found Ross’s humour similar to my friend’s. He loved the book. Another friend of mine from highschool, an engineer now, tuned out in Grade 13 English after we read ST Coleridge’s narrative ballad “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.” Guess why. He was memorizing the goddamn poem. Voluntarily. Because he liked it. If you were to ask him if he likes poetry, he’d probably say, “No, its boring.” But if you ask him if he likes “The Rime,” you’d see his eyes light up and he’d start talking to you about it.

What contemporary poetry?or older stuff?have you been reading, R. Paul? What kind of stuff do you like in other art forms? Yes, the reviews here are a mixed bag, but there are, I’m sure, lots of people reading this exchange who can recommend things you might like based on what else you like.

On February 14, 2007, Shane Neilson said:

Hey, R-

  Glad you decided to get funny. It helps your argument. But I’ll stick to the argument in this post, and not the jokes, which were good.

  I still think you’re asking me to be objective about subjectivity and subjective about objectivity- impossible, really. (Remember the like/dislike problem? You’re doing the same thing with different words.) In my solipsistic opinion, meaning that what I say is true, almost all in the arts is subjective. Why pretend otherwise except to promote one’s own view of poetry and criticism as a kind of divine right of opinion? When you ask for some “objective standard rigorously enforced,” I shudder and wonder: must we regress back to Empson? The best reactions to poetry are entirely subjective ones. I like idosyncracy- it is necessary to prevent hegemony.

I admit that my taste is not the same as yours- and perhaps that’s the most charitable thing we both can agree on. But I would never dream of reading a review and, heavens, equate disagreeing with it as a lack of objectivity. When there is, after all, none to be had. You champion rigour. Would that your own opinions be your representative.

On February 14, 2007, R. Puddicombe said:

Blast. So ripped I posted this under the MillAr review?But on the subject of your rampant subjectivity (your poor girlfriend, by the way)?

If that’s the case, Sporatic Growth is better than Dante’s Inferno because I say it is.

And subjectivity doesn’t exist either. Yes, that’s right, because I say so.

And I think I’ve just legislated myself out of exist?.

Please see Colbert on “Truthiness.”?


On February 14, 2007, Shane Neilson said:


  Perhaps you’ve a calling in the comedy clubs? Or perhaps as a magician. Either one.

  Subjectivity isn’t the same thing as being right. You’re confused again- do put away the substances. They lighten your mood, but they compromise your argument. Nowhere do I suggest that simply saying a book is good makes it true; there has to be an argument attached, reasoning. (It’s the reasoning that’s subjective.) Which you never seem to do! You need to practise your act.
  Anyone who maintains MillAr is better than Dante would have to convince me; but I’d keep an open mind. I wouldn’t take their opinion as holy writ, either. Is this the objectivity you seek? And if they actually wrote a piece that went some way to defending the seemingly indefensible territory that MillAr is superior, then I’d think: THAT’S criticism.

  By the way, humour is subjective, too. And you’ve proven yourself an excellent clown. But, like, that’s just my subjectivity getting the best of me again. Man.

Farewe?, O ripped one.

On February 16, 2007, Jennifer said:

Wanted to drop in and say. . . . I actually thought this was a very good review.  The reviewer took the time to look up the poet’s background, and is not only familiar with, but has read enough of, and thought enough about Canadian poetry to offer an informed assessment of the work, despite his unfamilarity with the poet at hand.

Maybe we need someone to write “A Defense of Criticism”, eh?.

There’s value in reviews written by those knowledgeable enough for that knowledge to be readily apparent.  Really?poetry is an allusive business, why should reviewing be any different? And furthermore, one of poetry’s mandates is to elicit a reaction of some sort. . . and while it is true that one man’s tripe is another man’s consolation, there is value in soliciting reviews from those with undeniable opinions and an ear open for creaking floorboards.

I was recently trying to tell a story about a friend of mine to a new acquaintance, and because this particular friend was not in the room to defend herself at the time, I tip-toed around some of her less than stellar qualities, going round and round, saying stuff like ” and the thing is, she’s a very nice person. . . .” and I winced at my every pronunciation.  Finally, this new acquaintance cut me off, and pointed at my other friend, who was sitting beside me rolling her eyes at my exertions. . . “Why don’t you let her tell it? she won’t tiptoe.  I don’t think you’re going to give me the real dirt.”

Point is, I think we should value reviewers who won’t tiptoe or try to make nice, which is what I have invariably done in my reviews on this site, because I really don’t yet feel I have the authority to do so beyond a certain level? I simply have not yet put in the hours of thought and practice and study?I go to bed too early.  But, reading critical reviews helps me develop my own sensibilities? if I disagree with something, or something strikes me as unbalanced, I can follow that up in my ownreading and thinking, if I’m concerned enough to actually think it through, and do my reading and research and give it further consideration. 

That’s what a good reviewer/critic can get us to do!!!!!!  Some critics, when they pan stuff, by god, it actually encourages people to check out the movie/song/book/poet in question.  It’s a vital contribution and I thank those here who take the time to do it so thoughtfully.  If some self-aggrandizement goes into that, well and good, because it isn’t like they are being paid $300.00/hr like some other subject experts. 

I do hope that no one will be deterred from reading and thinking about poetry because it can be difficult, and because it can be discussed frankly and with conviction.
And besides, what Neilson has provided here is a discerning review?background, context,  personal reactions, all.  Not a press release.  . . not fit for the Globe and Mail, undiplomatic, maybe, but of more substance than most. 

And considering that 50% of New Brunswick’s mean boys can’t even read above an eighth grade level (recent stats published), iIt’s disheartening to think that anyone should be encouraged to lower the bar to make things more accessible. Doing that nets us embarrassing literacy rates and a nation of polarized, uncritical, uninspired viewpoints.

And now I want to read a little more Wiseman. . . all I knew of him before was the poems contained in my battered anthology of 80s poets. . . .so something went right, somewhere?  thank you for that.

On February 17, 2007, T MacKay said:

Personally speaking, I am of 2 minds on the matter.  On the one side, I am a huge music fan and every once in a while, I’ll come across a review of an artist I like that is, for lack of better terminology “less than favorable”

I am momentarily irked because, when it comes to art we like, we take a perceived slight against that work as a slight against ourselves.

I am “bothered” only for a moment as it takes a mere nanosecond for me to remember that for critic of a piece of art who “unjustly” slags it, there is a fan who “unjustly” trumpets it.

To say that art is subjective is beating the stick that has already beaten the dead horse.

On the other side, the “free speech” aspect plays in, and everyone is entitled to state their opinion.

I have to say R.Paul that I disagree with your assessment wholeheartedly.

I see no reason to make writing “more accessible” as, in my opinion, that’s nothing more than a fancy way of saying it should be “dumbed down”. That, of course, is an irony that need not be explored any further.

I do not believe any art should be dumbed down, be it written, filmed, recorded or brushed.

I see no fault in challenging a person to think, research and, ultimately, learn.

That being said, I see no need for a reviewer to “dumb it down” in their reviews.  The ability and need to educate should not be relegated to the pages between two covers.

Just my $0.02

On February 17, 2007, A. J. Barley said:

Dear Zach,

As you say, this commentary has drifted, dude.

Back to Wiseman’s book, which is the subject of this review after all.

I have read the book,  and all the others previous, and the U of Toronto’s (archaic) blurb and have, like everyone, else, an opinion.

What annoyed me about your review, Mr. Neilson, were two things. The first being your choice of poems to showcase, such as “Dracula” and “Philistine at the Ballet”. Neither of those poems illustrates the best or most deft work of Wiseman and why you would focus there simply baffles me.

The second thing that annoys me is your sweeping generalisation, the “new poems . . . are abysmal”. Certainly, all the new poems are not so easily classified. It makes me wonder if you read the new poems because in a new and selected work this is surely the place to focus, praise, or complain. I think you missed the point of works like “Margaret Gill”. This poem is about living one’s life at the heart level rather than the material level. Yet, your critique of the work says more about your lack of experience than it does the poem.  A poem is good or not good based on the way on line grates on you. Perhaps you might want to read some more essays on poetry: W.H. Auden, Seamus Heaney, and Dana Gioia are wonderful places to glean some more understanding of what is important about poetry touching us on the human level.

At any rate, I think, when you are done your roach, you might find more in the new works with a second reading.

On February 18, 2007, Shane Neilson said:


  Hmmn- someone who actually, umm, wants to deal with substance. Thanks for your response.

  I felt that you were doing well, championing “feeling” as an honest means to assess the success of poetry, until you decided to dismiss my “experience” as somehow inadequate to appreciate Wiseman. Whatever do you mean? Do you presume to know my experiences? This seems to me to be a more elaborate way of saying, “You just don’t get it, man,” which may indeed be true. But once again, we’re going ad hominem. (By the way, thanks for the reading list, but I’ve already checked them off. Send along some more if you’ve got any less obvious.)
  But back to feelings. I agree with you that a poem that can’t affect a reader is a poor poem; there has to be an emotional connection, a rub. But to say that I don’t get that because I find sentimentality sentimental is to say that sugar is good for your teeth. Wiseman flirts with sentiment at the best of times- what do you think, Zach? Others?
  With regards to your idea of reviewing New and Selecteds, I always look for a reviewer to suggest some kind of summa for the career. To focus on the new stuff myopically is to lose sight of the career. All the poems in the book are fair game; and the old stuff comprises the bulk of the book, meaning that it should get the most space. To say that some poems don’t deserve comment -as you do- is to say, in effect, that some are worthless, and that’s my point. In a Selected, every poem counts more than in a regular trade book. The poems are picked for posterity; I admit I’m a little tougher on these. But they asked for it.

On February 19, 2007, Zach Wells said:

I agree, Shane. The “choice of poems to showcase” was not yours so much as it was Wiseman and his editor’s. And that was my big beef with this book: too many weak poems, which can have the effect, for the reader, of crowding out the better work included. This (call it self-indulgence) is a problem with the majority of Selecteds published. I think a desireable goal for a Selected Poems should be to have people complain about the good poems left out, rather than about the less good poems left in.

Since we’re talking about writers on poetry, here’s a handful I’ve found good or excellent, off the top of my head: Ted Hughes, Randall Jarrell, Michael Schmidt, Robyn Sarah, Borges, Peter Van Toorn, ST Coleridge, Dr. Johnson, Edwin Muir, James Fenton, Robert Bringhurst, Tom Disch, Carmine Starnino, John Hollander, Helen Vendler, William Empson (while I’m not arguing we should all be writing Empsonian criticism, Seven Types is nothing short of brilliant, especialy when you think how young he was when he wrote it), Harold Bloom, Peter Sanger.

On February 19, 2007, Alex said:

Which Bloom are you referring to Zach? He’s put out so much. And almost all of it is crap. I find him very weak both as a general critic and on specific texts.

Also disagree with this:

“I think a desireable goal for a Selected Poems should be to have people complain about the good poems left out, rather than about the less good poems left in.”

Why not err on the side of inclusivity? I don’t think it weakens a collection that much to throw in some B-sides, as long as you’re making sure all the good stuff is in there. Also I like to have a sampling from a poet’s full career, even if I do like the work from a particular part of his career more than others. I mean the early work by a lot of poets is pretty awful, but it’s still interesting to read to see how they developed so I don’t mind seeing some of these poems in a Selected.

On February 20, 2007, Zach Wells said:

_The Anxiety of Influence_ is the only Bloom book I’ve read entire, and I’d recommend it; a bit dense at times, but the ideas are very interesting. I’ve also found scattered essays good.

There’s a difference between erring on the side of inclusivity and self-indulgently republishing second-rate work because it’s no longer in print. I think there’s more of a case to be made for inclusivity in a Collected.

IJUR is a rather bulky bad compromise between a Collected and a Selected. Its length might have been justified if Wiseman’s work was characterised by more range and experimental variety, but the general homogeneity of his techniques and preoccupations makes the girth of the collection more palling than appealing. There might also be a case, albeit a weaker one, for a longer selection if Wiseman was a central figure in Canadian poetry. But as Shane makes clear, he hasn’t been; the book as published seems to me more apt to turn away new readers than turn them on.

An interesting point of comparison with IJUR is Peter Trower’s recently published Selected, _Haunted Hills and Hanging Valleys_. That one, representing the long career of a senior poet whose style and subject matter has been very similar from book to book, errs on the side of inclusivity, but at 157 pages, it’s almost 70 shorter than Wiseman’s. Wiseman’s is about the same length as Don McKay’s _Camber_, but McKay has a big following (in poetry terms) and is widely considered to be one of our important contemporary voices, so putting out a big book is more justified in publishing, if not in artistic, terms.

Faber publishes a lot of these slim 100 page or so selections?of much more significant poets than Wiseman. They can be an excellent introduction to a poet’s work; the essentials. We don’t have much of a tradition of publishing such books here, for some reason. WLUP has started a series in which each poet gets 35 poems, but the format (quasi-scholarly foreword by a younger poet and afterword by the feature poet) and editorial decisions (both in terms of poets selected?mostly predictable?and poems selected?often perverse) have been disappointing.

On March 04, 2007, mclean said:

If one is to write a review, then surely one should know how to write English? “Lacunae” is now and has always been a plural form and your use of the word so wrongly reveals that you are dismally unacquainted with Latin. Maybe you didn’t receive a proper formal education, but such a lacuna in your knowledge of English is so egregiously vulgar.

On March 12, 2007, Lynn Tait said:

Sorry, but the first first paragraph set my teeth on edge also.

And Dracula - Shane just doesn’t get it. Perhaps he has never experienced irrational fear as a kid. No monsters in his bedroom closet?

Not sure if it’s a good or bad review, but could easily feel negative about it after reading the first paragraph. Perhaps the reviewer bit off a little more than he could chew?

Interesting comments though. Thanks from a poet who will never win the GG

On June 17, 2007, Chris Wiseman said:

Well I’m glad my poems have caused such a strange discussion which is far more about reviewers and reviewing than about my book. I objected to the dismissing of 30 pages of my later poems after so much effort had gone into discussing early and very different poems. I wish Shane (never heard of Wiseman) Neilsen had attempted to discuss the way my work has changed over the 9 books of poetry I have published since 1971 (why hasn’t he heard of me?), and to justify his dismissal of my new work which has been roundly praised by many, if not always in print, and which attempt far more difficult technical and tonal effects than the earlier work. But it’s bad taste for a writer to write a response to a critic. In this case SN seems to have written two reviews, one following the other, as if he’s suddenly decided he’s being too generous and this unknown poet had better be cut down. I wish he’d been more openly honest in his dislikes, more aware of my uses of form - from free verse, to nonces, to villanelles, to sonnets, etc. - as it seriously affects that fascinating line I like to walk between strongly expressed feeling and the pit of sentimentality. I’d loved, too, for him to have tried to fit me into a canon - whose work is like mine? Who are my influences? Etc. I give his review a B- and that’s slightly lower than I give ZW’s review, which he quotes, which likes my work less, but says why (wrongly IMHO), but which explains his reasons better. Anyway I can assure Shane and Zacc that my next collection, from Signal, will be quite different from In John Updike’s Room, even though the latter is selling well and has won at least one major prize. But I should, here, say thanks for taking the time to review my work and give yourselves a nice bit of promotion in the subsequent discussion! You’ll go far guys!

On June 20, 2007, Alex said:

“But it’s bad taste for a writer to write a response to a critic.”

It has nothing to do with taste. It is, however, unwise.

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