Fetherling and the Reviewing of Canadian Poetry

Doug Fetherling, The Blue Notebook: Reports on Canadian Culture.  Oakville:   Mosaic Press, 1985. 161 pp.

"The ambition is as modest as the vessel that contains it," concludes Doug Fetherling in his "Preface" to The Blue Notebook which is, we are told, one man's perspective on Canadian culture during the 1970s.  The author, who is also a poet (Variorum: New Poems and Old, 1965-85), includes in these reports a number of chapters either dealing directly with poetry or alluding to it while referring to other cultural expressions such as film and political cartoons.  Four chapters of The Blue Notebook especially concern us here: "Louie, Ezra and Everybody Else — A Primer" (43-48), "Poetry Chronicles" (49-69), "Notes on Dennis Lee" (71-76) and "The Vernacular Alden Nowlan" (77-80).

     The first of these chapters is a book review of DK / Some Letters of Ezra Pound. The piece appeared in 1975 and takes the correspondence between Louis Dudek and Ezra Pound as a pretext to stress the influence of the American literary figure on contemporary Canadian poetry.  The reviewer seems to ignore fundamental facts about the above question: Pound gave some of our poets intellectual complexes, others still were justly concerned with the literary giant's small political ideas and, finally, most Canadian poets do work successfully from a purely pragmatic approach to the creative process.  Doug Fetherling's review is a manifestation of journalistic ambiguity for it tends to confuse Louis Dudek's knowledge with his own and literary anecdotes with the evolution of poetic forms.

     The fifth chapter of The Blue Notebook is made up of ten book reviews.  The first of these "Chronicles" is a piece on Ralph Gustafson's Theme and Variations for Sounding Brass (1972).  Again the reader realizes that Doug Fetherling is more concerned with pop art or current affairs than with poetics.  Abandoning very quickly a very impressionistic approach to Gustafson's work, the journalist states: "But these are stylistic occurrences" (50).  This is a sign that the reviewer is not concerned with formal features and falls back on superficial comments about thematic content.  On yet another level, Fetherling concludes: Theme and Variations for Sounding Brass is the work of a poet who bridges the gap between aesthetics and the daily news. . ." (51).  It is quite possible that, for a journalist, "Prague 1968," "Kent State" and "October 1970 in Quebec" are routine media events, but for a poet like Ralph Gustafson they remain tragedies.  This perspective on the world does not make a poet great but at least it makes him a sensitive soul.  Strangely enough, the author of The Blue Notebook seems to have more ability to connect with "the poetry of the derelict" and to understand John Newlove as a poet who "goes deeper within himself" (51).  But here again the critic does not even seem to be able to relate himself to a single line of Lies (1972).  Doug Fetherling reads poetry like the Impressionists looked at the world.  This is not an attack on one man, but simply a reflection of the distance that separates true literary criticism from mere reviewing in our country.

     The journalistic superficiality becomes rather troubling in the review of Dorothy Livesay's Collected Poems: The Two Seasons (1973).   Here allusions to "Chief Dan George" and "an immigrant in Montreal" seem somewhat insensitive to ethnic identities.  Fetherling's comparison between the reviewer and Dorothy Livesay only tend to prove that, already in the l930s, she had more mature and delicate sensitivity than Saturday Night had in the 1970s.  The absence of refinement is only an indication of a lack of poetic knowledge.  Some reviewers have a tendency to read for information and talk about poems dealing with "Japanese-Canadians in British Columbia during the Second World War" (53) as "documentaries."  The lack of both ethical and aesthetic awareness becomes a rather troubling element.  Poems are first of all poems and if they can influence actions it is through the heart, not through the reporting of facts.   This uncouth approach reaches its climax when Fetherling speaks of a poet's evolution and feels obliged to follow what John Updike called "The hill of life" in Midpoint.  Like swimmers, some poets peak too young, and then Canadian journalists have to retire them.

     In reviewing Eli Mandel's Crusoe: Poems Selected and New (1973) Fetherling makes the following statement: "These are Mandel's most interesting work.  They are also his most accomplished, since he drops his formal position as recycler of myth and champion of the imagination and writes more from the gut, while retaining his authoritative diction" (56).  I am not sure that Fetherling understands Eli Mandel's Western roots, but, as anyone can see, the above statement is taken from the list of "reviewing clichés." The "gut" vs "myth" game has become a recycled myth itself.

     With Joe Rosenblatt's Dream Craters (1974) Fetherling reviews the picture on the cover rather than the book itself.  He is also dead wrong about every point he tries to make.  For instance he goes to great lengths to attack "Poetry Hotel," the very wonderful poem that has given Joe Rosenblatt's collected poems its title: Poetry Hotel (1985).

     About Susan Musgrave's Grave-Dirt and Selected Strawberries (1974), Fetherling seems rather positive — but for the wrong reasons — for he tends again to equate pop art and current affairs with poetic excellence.

     As far as Al Purdy's production is concerned, Fetherling makes two statements that are worth noting.  Although applied to Being Alive: Poems 1958-78 (1978) the following comment could be generalized to Purdy's other works:

When he writes prose, which he does from time to time, Purdy tries using this same persona, but he's never so successful.  His grammar looks dilapidated and the syntax always seems to have its shirt-tail hanging out.  The problem is not that he lacks style; it's that he loses interest in writing what isn't poetry, what doesn't put his eye and his ear to working in unison.  (61).

Let's not dwell on the incoherent closing metaphor.  The point is well taken.  What makes more sense here is the initial hypothesis that still has to be developed: Purdy's weak prose is the reason for his total dedication to poetry.   Again, this type of judgment has been made about others, perhaps the most striking example being Paul Verlaine.  But this time we have an insight, something to wrestle with: a substantial review could have begun with this idea.  The other statement made by Fetherling about Purdy is not as exact as the first:

If there's one conclusion to be drawn about Purdy from Being Alive it's that he's that rare creature in literary circles, a truly happy man, unmarked by rancour, living a well-considered life, trying to make sense of his past and his present. (62)

Of course nothing could be further from the truth.  But even if Purdy were the Archangel Gabriel we, the readers, should appreciate him on aesthetic grounds.  In other words we should be interested in his poems, not in his performance as the imaginary boy scout of Canadian letters.

     The inclusion of Irving Layton's Taking Sides (1978) shows the weakness of this type of book.  Why deal with the worst book of prose by Irving Layton in "Poetry Chronicles"?  The same reservations could be applied to Fetherling's review of Earle Birney's semi-autobiographical prose.

     The final section is a review of Bruce Whiteman's bibliography of Raymond Souster and of Fraser Sutherland's bibliography of John Glassco.  I will not reiterate my objection to the inclusion of these reviews in the book.  What culminates here is the lack of critical ability.  The obvious should be recognized: John Glassco has more panache than Raymond Souster.  The same applies to the bibliographers: Fraser Sutherland is day, Bruce Whiteman is night.

     The sixth chapter, "Notes on Dennis Lee," makes me think of the type of colleague who stands up in a meeting in order to defend a motion we are all ready to adopt.  By the time he is finished most of us will vote against it.  I am sure Dennis Lee will be embarrassed by the low-class propaganda.  Dennis Lee needs understanding, not praise, especially not from Doug Fetherling: the fact is that the reviewer has nothing to say about Lee's major work: Civil Elegies.  He should at least have the courage to recognize its depth and complexity.

     Finally, the seventh chapter, "The Vernacular Alden Nowlan," seems to be an exception to the book.  Fetherling does blunder when he tends to confuse the literal and the figurative sense of the poetic voice (77-78) and does admit that at one point "The poems are becoming very — in a word — journalistic" (79).  But one sees here a will to comprehend the artistic totality of the "Atlantic sensibility" (78).  It is perhaps this chapter that gives us a sure sign: Doug Fetherling is less at fault than Saturday Night.   Given the elbow room, the time, and better retribution the critic could develop his talent more fully and have the leisure to reflect more on theory.  In such a case Fetherling's reviews, which are ephemeral, could acquire a sense of permanence.

     Selected reviews are frequently made into books on the British or the French literary scene because in Europe these activities are taken seriously and paid relatively well.   One feels more than understanding when Doug Fetherling describes his profession: "It's not much of a living though it's not a bad life."  Until we solve the problem of reviewing in Canada our poetry will remain a minor cultural manifestation.

Alexandre L.  Amprimoz