I’m sceptical of the word “progress” when talking about poets and their careers. Progress implies too strong a value judgement, as though, by some objective measure, we can say that practice and the wisdom of age necessarily make for better poetry. There are too many contrary examples of canonical poets whose best work came in their early- or mid-careers to accept the proposition (Wordsworth and Lowell come immediately to mind). I like “career” much better as a verb–swift, uncontrolled action–and, even better, I like “career narrative” as the record of those twists and swerves. _This Way Out_ is definitely a swerve in Carmine Starnino’s narrative, one that draws out a basic conflict that has been playing through Starnino’s poetry for some time. To be more precise, it’s a conflict in the poetics more than the poems: a conceptual tension between “writing about x” and “writing poetry.”
by Carmine Starnino
click to link to read poem
If there’s a Canadian poem readers know by heart, chances are it’s Margaret Atwood’s four-liner “You Fit into Me”. A quick start: “You fit into me / like a hook into an eye.” A quicker ending: “A fish hook / an open eye.” As short lyrics go, it’s flawless: perfectly judged and perfectly ruthless.
“You Fit into Me” was published in 1971, and its sting is a fair example of Atwood’s method at the time. The lovey-dovey snugness we associate with hooks and eyes is exactly the conditioned response she uses to draw blood. But you really have to go back to the late sixties and mid-seventies–when her fish hooks were at their sharpest–to understand why she caused such a stir when she came on the scene. _The Circle Game_ appeared in 1966 looking more or less like any other slim mid-century debut. But the differences were important. Daughter of an entomologist and student of Northrop Frye, Atwood fronted a poetry whose soundings of female consciousness were forensic and archetype-obsessed. She was, at heart, a young poet with an unstoppable knack (six books in the eight years from 1966 and 1974) for writing striking descriptions of extreme emotional states. Some of it recalled Anne Wilkinson, who also overhauled romantic emblems and came to conclusions that, for their time, were just as unflinching (“I’d love this body more / If graved in rigid wood / It could not move.”) But while Wilkinson’s poems simmered without boiling over, Atwood remade her anger into a series of attacks with no retreat….
James Denoon: 19th Century Royal Artillery Officer and “Everyman’s” Poet
Rediscovered by poet, critic and editor Carmine Starnino.
In 2006, Montreal poet and book dealer Michael Harris discovered a 125-year-old packet of handwritten, occasional verse “chapbooks” authored by an officer of the Royal Artillery named James Denoon (1802-1901). The essay uses the occasion of Harris’ discovery to write about Denoon, uncovering his life through his poetry, and at the same time celebrating unknown versifiers who wrote not for fame, but out of a sense of duty to family, friends, and community. Occasional, unpretentious verse (otherwise known as doggerel) has a long tradition in English poetry, a phenomenon that was especially powerful during the time Denoon was alive.