The poetry war rages around us, full of mud-slinging and online barb-lobbing. Oh yes, and there are books. Donato Mancini’s You Must Work Harder to Write the Poetry of Excellence is the newest of these, and I signed myself up to review it because, as a poet on the edge of the field, I can’t help but study the tapes, review the power plays, and keep an ear cocked for locker-room gossip. Mancini makes some valuable points about the nature of reviewing in Canada – that “Canadian poetry is cultural product identified by readers of Canadian poetry as Canadian poetry”; that other definitions are “violently essentialist and historically redactive” (44); that reviewers too often appeal to a “common reader” as if it were possible for a “common reader” to exist as anything other than a phantasm; that a sort of aesthetic moralism, coupled with a crafts discourse likening writing poetry to carpentry, permeates review culture. None of this is untrue – but it all seems more like the place to begin a discussion about reviewing poetry in Canada, rather than the hard-fought conclusion of a 240-page book.
Additionally, You Must Work Harder to Write the Poetry of Excellence commits ideological missteps similar to those with which it charges reviewers. Deconstructing the trope of the “common reader,” Mancini creates the trope of the “common reviewer,” for the most part ignoring critical inroads that have pluralized approaches to reviewing (Lemon Hound’s review section and NeWest Press’s Writer as Critic series come to mind, for example). As well, Mancini twice accuses reviewers of not having read the books they reviewed (35, 230), without presenting any solid evidence for the accusation. In the example on page 230, Mancini quotes Lyle Neff’s “Eunnoyance: How the Griffin Decision Favours Effort Over Accomplishment”: “‘if we grant that [Karen Solie’s] Short Haul Engine and [Christian Bok’s] Eunoia are both good books which took some heavy artistic lifting to make, doesn’t Solie’s book gain the aesthetic upper hand because it is a more buoyant read?’” In the service of a Marxian critique, Mancini concludes that Neff is “stuck with the serious dilemma of how to arrive, conscientiously, at the conclusion that Solie’s book is better,” and that he does this by “altering his definition of labour” and deciding that “Short Haul Engine is better, and more prizeworthy, because it was, in truth, harder to write than Eunoia” (231). I’m all for Marx, but I don’t see a (re)definition or subsequent adjudication of labour in the Neff quotation Mancini chose – rather, I see Neff asserting that Short Haul Engine is better because it’s a “more buoyant read” – better because of the response it elicited in Neff the reader.
And this is my largest criticism of You Must Work Harder – it commits several of these critical overreaches as it attempts to dismantle the moral high ground of the dominant idiolect of poetry reviewing in Canada. Further, Mancini’s few but laudatory mentions of postmodern poetry and postmodern reviewing practices, rather than illustrating the possibility of a pluralization of practices, are structured in such a way that they shore up an equivalent (and similarly ideologically blind) moral high ground for the avant-garde. For the record, I don’t count myself as part of either camp, and I don’t find the idea of camps all that productive anymore anyway. There are many of us over here on the fringes who read and write poetry (poetries?) with an eye for what is possible for those poetries on their own terms – this is how we talk amongst ourselves, and maybe, with the next shift in the field, this is how we’ll review our contemporaries.
andrea bennett’s fiction, non-fiction and poetry has been published in magazines across Canada. She is an associate editor at Adbusters. Visit her at andreabennett.ca.