Cage Match of Canadian Poetry: Microwaveable Elizabethans and the Sonnets of Future Memories

Two typical White Male Canadian poet/critics enact their place of privilege and demonstrate some key moves from the master discourse.

Last night, I finally got around to watching the “Cage Match of Canadian Poetry.”, a discussion between Christian Bok and Carmine Starnino. As always, Christian Bok was articulate and amusing, creating beguiling paradigms vividly expressed. His language was rich and highly charged with a wide array of colourful imagery. In many ways, Christian’s argument was exemplified by the rhetorical devices of his delivery and the imagery of his argument. (At one point, he was advocating the greater recognition of the poetry of the various language contexts of our time. It made me think of his various comments or quips concerning online porn, microwaveability, and ‘the software of reality.’) Over the past decade or so, Christian has practiced to be a master rhetorician. And he was certainly that in the Cage Match.

Regardless of my position on the argument, I found Carmine to be unclear, halting, and for the most part, unengaging. He brought forward few interesting – or even clear – arguments.(footnote 1) Carmine, too, has practiced, as evidenced by his outspoken critical writing, to be a vivid rhetorician. He didn’t demonstrate it here. (I was particularly disheartened by his comments about the role of women and minorities in contemporary poetry. Frankly, I forgot which decade I was in.)

But really, how these guys did performed isn’t what I want to discuss. I want to address, the, what I take to be, false duality of the argument.

Christian’s view is that poetry should be an experimental, exploratory art, taking risks, trying out aesthetic hypotheses, opening up new avenues of discourse and discovery the way science advances. Poetry is research.

Carmine assertion is that poetry can also stay close to the tradition, ‘re-relevanting’ past discourses by relating them to a current situation. (footnote 2). There is a place for the comfort food of poetry. Well executed, insightful, writing which draws connections between past views and the contemporary world. So, for example we don’t always want to experience ‘inventive’ food. Sometimes we want Mac and Cheese, though I like (for example) how my wife has modified the usual recipe and uses interesting cheeses in addition to the usual, making the cheddar cheesiness of the traditional Mac and Cheese more vivid to me.

I don’t know why we can’t have both approaches as part of a vital and active poetry world. Sometimes poetry is research, exploration of the hadronic structure of a conceptual alphabet of supernovae. Sometimes it is renovation, rejuvenation, development, and refinement. I like my Blues atonal and with a seventeen and a half bar form. But I also like good ol’ 12 bar blues with just the three chords, well executed, sometimes with old words, sometimes with new words that talk about sex, lost love, and microwaveability.

Christian argues that most poetry isn’t ambitious enough (by this he means, mostly exploratory enough.) He creates an opposition between the artisanal vs the artistic. Much poetry is hobby pots, when it could be missions to other planet or a breaking open of particles we didn’t even know existed. Exploration is good. The new for the sake of the new is good, too. Pure research. Invention, discovery, and delight. Opening up of the hood. But there something to be said for refinement and elaboration. It doesn’t mean subsiding into the Rococo or the mannered. I wouldn’t want to preclude the opportunity for a brilliant syncreticism, a truly insightful summation of a tradition. Heck, half of Shakespeare is this.

They are many ways ‘forward’. Sometimes the way forward is to the side. And sometimes, we don't know which direction is forward. Or sideways. And we can't tell a quantum leap from an autumn leaf, a quivering lip from a quarking letch.

I believe in multifunctionality. In multiplicity and biodiversity. In the world and in aesthetics.


1: I take Carmine’s point that sometimes the ‘hook’ of Eunoia is all anyone says about that book. They talk about the constraint and not about the jokes, the narratives, the joy of sound, the imagery, etc. It’s like talking only about how a sonnet fulfills its form without speaking of what else it does.

2: I can’t see how Carmine can say that he reads 16th century work in the same way as 21st century work, without a historical or social context. Not to say that 16th century isn’t vital, alive, and aesthetically fruitful to read, it’s just that one needs to understand how a 21st North American heterosexual white man (or someone else with different experiences/background) might have different (perhaps unconscious) paradigms than a 16th century Elizabethan educated aristocrat. (My forebears didn’t speak English and lived in a shtetl in Lithuania. Elizabethan sonnets would have been entirely foreign and exotic to my ancestors. Likewise, they are not my indigenous culture. I learned of them through education, just as I learned about Medieval settings of the Catholic mass or the stunningly beautiful music of the West African kora. How can I not contextualize them within history and relativize their aesthetics within a particular cultural reality?)