Culture & Conversation

Suffering fools badly

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Career Limiting Moves: Interviews, Rejoinders, Essays, Reviews by Zachariah Wells, Biblioasis

I first encountered Zachariah Wells’ critical writing in 2007 or 2008 through his blog, Career Limiting Moves, which he subtitles “Saying shit I shouldn’t since 1977” (which happens to be the year of his birth). Through it I followed him as he consolidated a reputation as a tough, unfettered poetry reviewer along the lines of Carmine Starnino, Jason Guriel and Michael Lista. By turns truculent, blunt, feisty and eloquent, Wells has never been known to shy away from an argument and, at least in print, suffers fools badly. A little over a year ago, a handsome tome came out from Biblioasis bearing the title of his blog—but with the more dignified subtitle found above.

Wells’ “Strawman Dialectics,” his passionate rebuttal of the now-viral Jan Zwicky essay “The Ethics of the Negative Review,” fulfills expectations. As a reviewer, I must admit that I immediately sympathize with Zwicky’s concern. Why waste time writing about work for which one does not have genuine enthusiasm? As she puts it, she is “only too aware of how many excellent books are published each year to no notice of any sort; it [seems] perverse to kill trees to complain about the bad ones.” Deathly critical silence, she argues, would do all the public work that needed doing.

Well’s argument, though, is that “the negative reviewer” she describes is a caricature with an “impoverished soul, myopic vision and narrow mind,” who “bears scant resemblance to any actual flesh-and-blood reviewer.” It leaves little room for the possibility of a skeptical, tough but nuanced review. This position is legitimate enough: short of ensuring writing engaged with its subject matter, Zwicky’s prescription could well lead to the very sleepwalking, trance-like review culture she wants to prevent.

Some pugnacious—and hilarious—fare follows, including a piece exposing the oafish inner workings of the “People’s Poetry” award, and another that lampoons badly worded jury citations for a League of Canadian Poets award, as well as pieces that expose the “depressingly low” standards of reviewing in Canada. As we progress through the Essays and Reviews section, we discover in Wells a thorough reader and masterful critic. Poets he takes down a notch with his trenchant pen include perennial favourites Don MacKay (“His poems are fun, smart, easy to like. But like a stranger you meet on a train, I don’t think much about them afterwards”), Anne Simpson (“a tourist in the realms of human misery and suffering”), and Patrick Lane (“singing the sadsack song of his self-image”). But in all cases, he does indicate strengths of said poets, although I think his assessment of Simpson could have been more balanced. Lengthy essays that take up the cause of unjustly neglected poets like Peter Van Toorn and Peter Sanger, as well as an award-winning piece on Bruce Taylor, are standouts. The poets’ work is quoted fully enough that we gain direct experience of what these poets are like.

Wells has acquired a reputation for chiefly favouring formal poetry. On the work of Larkin-like Toronto poet Pino Colluccio, he writes: “It’s easy to dismiss Colluccio’s prosody as anachronistic sport, but with free verse’s reign on the wane, it seems to me far more avant-garde than old guard to rhyme as much as he does.” P.E.I. poet’s John Smith’s writing “goes against the grain of the Purdyesque self-effacement and plain speech that has so much currency in Canada.” But vers libre poems by the likes of minimalist Souvankham Thammavongsa, the multifarious Patrick Warner, and the oft-compressive Richard Outram are singled out for careful, praiseful attention as well. Interesting that he takes his friend Carmine Starnino to task for, among other things, his unfairly dismissive attitude in his A Lover’s Quarrel towards free-verser Al Purdy. Overall, Career Limiting Moves is a thoroughly engaging and frequently illuminating read.

The original publications of the interviews, rejoinders, essays, and reviews now collected in the book span a ten year period. Says Wells in an interview in the reviewer’s notes that came with the book, “I’ve acquired a lot more finesse and sense over the course of that decade. There were some early reviews that I didn’t consider for inclusion in CLM because they were too pointlessly harsh. Not that I disagree with what I said, but now I’d be more inclined to say nothing about poets whose profile doesn’t justify a sharp (re)assessment. As I said, a skeptical review is most interesting and relevant when it’s a minority report. When it’s a book’s only review, it’s an embarrassment—or should be.” Does this suggest at least a partial concession to Zwicky’s point of view?

Brian Campbell’s most recent book is A Private Collection (Sky of Ink Press.) Visit him at www.briancampbell.ca.

– photo: Camera Eye Photography, Flickr Creative Commons


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