True Poetry?

Pauline Greenhill, True Poetry: Traditional and Popular Verse in Ontario. Montreal and Kingston: McGill-Queen's University Press, 1989. xvi + 230 pp.

The problems that plague this book begin with its title. For my purpose, however, it is convenient to start with the subtitle: Traditional and Popular Verse in Ontario. I had expected — surely with reason — a historical account of balladry and folk poetry, with possible revelations concerning the existence and dissemination of an oral tradition of popular verse. I was reminded, in other words, of compilations like V. de Sola Pinto and A.E. Rodway's The Common Muse or James Reeves's The Idiom of the People, books published in the late 1950s that gathered together texts of English traditional poetry and song. Or, to turn to Canadian instances, I anticipated a scholarly treatment of the kind of material collected by Edith Fowke and others in such gatherings as The Penguin Book of Canadian Folk Songs or Lumbering Songs from the Northern Woods.

     In fact, Pauline Greenhill embarks on her research by examining local newspaper-verse published in the early 1980s, and branches out from there to investigate the ways in which recited verse contributes to such social events as "a community shower or a Women's Institute meeting"(14). "Only a limited amount of Ontario folk poetry," she tells us, "is traditional in the sense that it has been known and used for generations"(18). (Then why use the word "traditional" in the sub-title?) As for "popular" verse, it is "occasional" in the literal sense of the word: "Most local works are intended for use only once. In general, folk poetry in contemporary Ontario is timely rather than timeless"(18).

     If the sub-title is frustratingly deceptive, however, the main title is enigmatic to the point of meaninglessness. Does Greenhill, one wonders, make any significant distinction between "poetry" and "verse"? What is "True Poetry"? Is there such a thing as "Untrue Poetry" or "False Poetry"? Why is the material treated in this book, which most literary critics would classify as either occasional verse or even doggerel, graced with such an exalted, possibly coat-trailing phrase?

     No satisfactory answers to these questions are ever offered. Curiously, since Greenhill clearly sees herself as providing a disciplined, scholarly, "scientific" approach to her subject, she never considers it necessary to define "poetry" — let alone "true poetry" — in the precise way in which (as we shall see) she defines the extended contemporary implications of "folklore." The nearest she comes to such a definition is in the following sentence: "First, some textual content is present because the work is a poem — that is, it exhibits such features as rhyming words and divisions into lines and verses"(15). This is not, of course, what literary critics mean by "textual content," but the sentence reveals that Greenhill's measure of poetry is that of the average citizen: it will generally employ rhyme (often, in the examples she quotes, a crude attempt at rhyme) and display certain elements of regularity, including some rough approximation to metrical pattern. There is nothing here — or anywhere else in the book — that recognizes such qualities as subtlety of rhythm, verbal nuance, challenging levels of language. She insists that folk poetry "is most often descriptive, realistic, and concrete," that "metaphor, metonymy, synecdoche, and irony are rare," and that it "does not deal abstractly with concepts"(14). Significantly, this is more specific about what is absent than about what is present. To be successfully "descriptive, realistic, and concrete," it is still necessary to display art and skill. Unfortunately, art and skill cannot be unequivocally identified, isolated, or measured, so they tend to elude any sociological or narrowly scientific inquiry.

     Greenhill writes not as a literary critic but as a folklorist. Further more, she writes as a contemporary folklorist, approaching her subject with a concern to establish its position within a larger cultural context. Folklore, she argues, is properly regarded as "situated performance and as commu nicative event"(13); folk poetry is "a form of symbolic communication"(13) that contributes to communal solidarity and helps to strengthen a sense of local identity. The instances she cites are examined, quite deliberately, not for their qualities as poetry but for their significance as sociological phe nomena. Greenhill has, of course, every right to examine the material from this viewpoint. On the other hand, if she chooses an art such as verse-making for her subject, she has an obligation to master at least the rudiments of literary criticism. Unfortunately, she labours under two disadvantages that appear crippling: first, she shows no evidence of a sense of humour (crucial, since the social contexts are often celebratory and light hearted); second, she displays little or no appreciation of poetry as a subtle form of artistic expression.

     These two deficiencies are related. Early in her argument, she comes down hard on William Arthur Deacon for his humorous put-downs of feeble and over-earnest poetasters in The Four Jameses (1927). Greenhill is not amused, and sees his book (which is as much a parody of criticism as of the poets treated) as typical of the sense of superiority and ignorance manifested by sophisticated critics when they turn their attention to popular verse. Ironically, however, Deacon's account of James McIntyre displays a sensitivity to the way that poets use (or ought to use) language that is never equalled in the rest of Greenhill's book. But her problems when faced with humour are most conspicuous in her treatment of Paul Hiebert, which I must quote in full:

Some writers are not content [like Deacon] merely to deride actual folk poets. Humourist Paul Hiebert, for instance, is famous for creating the "Sweet Songstress of Saskatchewan," the fictional Sarah Binks. He wrote both Binks's biography and poetry, though, with a thorough understanding of content and context as well as style. For example, Binks publishes in the Horsebreeder's Gazette and Swine and Kine (locally distributed special interest periodicals) in addition to her privately printed books. Her subjects, too, are familiar ones in vernacular poetry; farming, the seasons, her dog, and other everyday matters (Hiebert 1964). (6)

I cannot resist pointing out that the whole paragraph, from its deadpan treatment of information ("locally distributed special-interest periodicals") to the scrupulous scholarly reference at the end, is reminiscent of no one so much as Hiebert himself.

     Greenhill's unease with poetry is revealed by her capacity to reproduce the most extraordinary statements without apparently seeing the need for defence or even comment. Right at the beginning of her book, she unguardedly observes: "Many [folk poems] display their writers' lack of interest in the technical aspects of literature"(4). Would we be impressed by composers uninterested in the technical aspects of music? Later, she writes: "Almost every poet [i.e., every folk poet that she interviewed] agreed that a versemaker needed nothing more than interest"(41). Are we really expected to take this kind of comment seriously?

     Not surprisingly, Greenhill has the gravest suspicion of academic criticism (though she's not above name-dropping when such contemporary idols as Bakhtin, Foucault, and Jakobson are concerned). She refers disapprovingly to "mainstream ideology" and "elite culture" (xiii). Against the consensus of most intellectuals, she asserts that a popular interest in poetry still exists, though occasional evidence of widespread suspicion leaks through from time to time — when, for instance, she acknowledges that several editors of community newspapers expressed "a complete lack of interest in [her] subject and in local poetry" [x]). It could be argued, however, that this suspicion may be a result of the way "poetry" is too often associated with the crude sentimentality and verbal incompetence manifested in the specimens she quotes and analyses. What is disturbing is Greenhill's evident inability to recognize this incompetence. "A folk poem, she asserts, "in an urban, sophisticated context looks like doggerel"(7-8). Apparently, it isn't, but, since she never explains why doggerel should be a matter of local context rather than verbal quality, we never learn how verse that resembles doggerel can be miraculously transformed into the category of "true poetry." Here is a specimen from the beginning of the book:

The numbers who flock
To the Skyline Drive
Assures every tourist
Haliburton is alive. (3)

Here is another from near the end:

Terry Fox don't ever stop
You're on the top
You're having fun
We'll help you finish that run. (197)

To call these examples of "true poetry" is like mistaking a TV commercial for a serious work of art.

     This book goes through all the ritual motions of research scholarship. Communal performances are duly recorded and transcribed; variant versions are compared and analysed; the social contexts are carefully etched in; impressive-sounding theories are constructed to account for the material dutifully collected. In many aspects of intellectual inquiry, this would be enough. But when poetry is concerned, it is patently not enough. What ever Greenhill may say, academic critics have not neglected the exquisite popular poetry of the past. From the ballads and lyrics of the Middle Ages through Renaissance songs to more recent folk poetry, a wealth of traditional poems of the highest quality has been recognized and praised; moreover, major poets like Burns, Wordsworth, and Yeats have contributed their own original genius to the cultural hoard of popular song. But quality, here as elsewhere, is of the essence, and this is a palpable if immeasurable requirement which Greenhill's specimens do not possess. Readers of Cana dian Poetry have a right to expect that a book with the title of True Poetry will display a reasonably sophisticated approach to the art of poetry and be capable of making the kinds of judgments and discriminations that are always necessary. Unfortunately, judged by these criteria, True Poetry fails.

W. J. Keith