"Worthwhile Evidence"

Dermot McCarthy, A Poetics of Place. The Poetry of Ralph Gustafson. McGillQueen's University Press, 1991. 323 pp.

Dermot McCarthy's comprehensive study of Ralph Gustafson is welcome for several reasons. It pays close attention to a writer who is well-known yet neglected. Gustafson's name invariably appears in literary histories, but his work seldom appears in anthologies and is largely ignored by the critical journals. McCarthy argues persuasively for a revaluation of Gustafson's achievement, which "has been a quiet, continuous accretion of singular successes over a half-century of constant toil, to the point that. . . he is the author of a score of major poems, and in Rocky Mountain Poems (1960) of a volume of great importance for modern Canadian poetry"(9-10). McCarthy's study is also welcome because Gustafson's busy career has run parallel to the course of modern Canadian poetry. From an early age he immersed himself in the world of letters as poet, essayist, editor and anthologist, and he continually tested himself against the prevailing doctrines of the day. He began writing in the 1930s in an effusive romantic manner. While studying in England he fell under the influence of the second generation of modernist authors (Auden, Day Lewis, Spender), whose taut, sceptical style and political concern he adapted to his own sensibility. He proceeded into what McCarthy treats as a postmodern phase in the 1960s, and continued in the next two decades to consolidate the earlier influences, especially in the "postmodern lyric of attention the poem that centres itself in the recollected moment" and in a privileged place.

     A chronological study of Gustafson's verse is therefore also a history of modern Canadian poetry, viewed from the perspective of a sophisticated participant. Accordingly, McCarthy provides an ongoing cultural, historical and biographical commentary, which he uses to illuminate Gustafson's developing poetic. The historical record breaks no new ground, as it follows the tracks of cultural commentators such as Samuel Hynes, Robert Hewison and Michael Gnarowski; but McCarthy is diligent in tracing sources, in summarizing schools and persuasions (Apocalyptics, Personalists, Objectivists), and in relating them to the fine points of Gustafson's style.

     McCarthy benefits from having strong ideas and a firm, developing argument. He always seems certain of where he stands with respect to his subject, and is apt to present his judgments as statements of fact, for example, declaring a given poem to be crucial, a turning point or high-water mark. His confidence is important, however, in giving assurance to the study, which marshals a wealth of historical, theoretical and practical information in a complex (though occasionally repetitive) argument. The argument is varied but carefully, even narrowly focused, because it is controlled by a few key premises about Gustafson and about poetry in general.

     Amid the currents of his career, Gustafson remains "essentially romantic"(87) in his poetic instincts. His romanticism is sustained by a belief that "sensibility" is the vital core of imagination, while poetry is the voice of sensibility as it surveys and articulates experience. Sensibility is "that dimension of self which provisions both identity and creativity"(15) by providing a servicable poetic "disposition": "A poem is thus, in a number of senses, a disposition; it is an attitude or stance toward its subject which comprises both the poet and itself as artifact, as well as its content"(197). The encounter of subject and object thus becomes the primal experience for Gustafson, as it is for romantic theorists like Northrop Frye. Poetry is "the argument between mind and world"(181), through which meanings are recognized, constructed and celebrated. The last three terms chart the progress of poetic thought in individual poems as well as in Gustafson's career. Meaning is recognized as "the numinous power of the objective world"; it is constructed by the "equally tantalizing power of mind or imagination"; and the poet must reconcile these competing sources of truth in order to achieve "the co-presence of each power in the powers of poetic composition and language use"(95-6). This dialectic means that the poet is always a balancing artist, and McCarthy continually praises Gustafson for his legerdemain. He excels in deploying irony, counterpoint and "mutality"(44). He has a "characteristic double vision, the balancing of sense and premonition"(146-7). His sensibility "oscillates between fascination and awe, ironic penetration and considered humility"(154). He expresses a "disillusioned affirmation"(159), "benign scepticism"(227-8) and "sober ecstasy"(232).

     The fact that Gustafson is a "belated romantic"(37) has a series of implications that McCarthy traces and illustrates through the course of the book. The fact explains Gustafson's Wordsworthian "immanentist perspective"(16) — his assurance that" 'reality includes its own meaning' "(231), which must be sought within rather than beyond experience. It explains his (and McCarthy's) fascination with "energy," its forms and disposition. It explains his humanism — his insistence that poetry respect the individual, that it exert moral power, that it maintain "the tradition of life-affirming choices"(223). It explains his residual thirst for, but also his distrust of, the gorgeous promises of romanticism: the overarching vision, ceremonies celebrating a "sacral world"(230), immortal longings, "man's doom amid magnificence"(90). Gustafson con tinually broaches romantic ideals, confident that he will be disappointed by them, but hopeful that he will find solace in the "shattered grace"(184) in a world of magnificent particulars:

The progress of wind in the stalks, the wheatspears
Rust-colour, the rasp of particular love.
I awaited the final knowledge of knowing,
The consolidation of eternity, yet what I knew,
The place where I was wholly, was already what
Those absolutes are.

     McCarthy assesses Gustafson's poetic theory and practice in terms of Gustafson's own values. This too is a strength as well as a limitation of the book, in that author and subject seem so closely attuned. McCarthy analyzes the poems eloquently and precisely, as if his own taste has been formed by reading Gustafson. The poems succeed or fail according to standards that poet and critic share. But McCarthy rarely seeks a further perspective, either theoretical or historical, from which to evaluate those standards. The danger of remaining too close to Gustafson's terms and tone is that explanations will grow circular, as the definition of "sensibility," quoted above, illustrates. I would welcome a more detached account of terms such as "immanentist," "concentric" and "sensibility." I also suspect that McCarthy sometimes relies too much on the persuasive power of his eloquence; for example: "The verbal in this final phrase is a gemlike pivot in the poem's spiral into and out of its own propelling anxieties" (123). Still, his accounts of poems like "Mythos" and The Stone Mountain Poems are exemplary. He is an excellent reader, who is perfectly at ease with matters of metre and nuance, with manuscript variations, with literary echoes and classical allusions. His writing is a pleasure to read.

     The way McCarthy shares Gustafson's values also affects his version of literary history. He usually assesses schools, styles and doctrines in relation to their romantic inheritance. This approach makes him particularly sensitive to the belated romanticism that complicates modernist theory: its nostalgia, its fondness for myth, its faith in poetic logic to recuperate the world through metaphor and an autonomous imagination. I am less comfortable with the claim that Gustafson is a postmodernist avant la lettre, because both his romantic sensibility and McCarthy's critical method, which judges poetry by means of that sensibility, seem to defy postmodern precepts. McCarthy's strategy is to discuss Gustafson as a poet whose technique and sense of self are "concentric" with history, language and the world. This configuration guards against egocentricity and the ambitions of an imperial self that would dominate reality: "poetic coherence is not 'inclusive unity' but rather the concentricity of the poetic self in a finite but unfinished progress toward meaning"(163). Nevertheless, in defiance of postmodern eccentricity, McCarthy's rhetoric of circles inevitably imposes a logical and phenomenological centre on Gustafson's "concentric humanism"(131). Few postmodern writers would agree that ". . . the poet's self revolves in place and moves through its particulars to a new view of its unchanging centre. The self remains the pivot, the hub of the turning mind"(153).

     In fact, there is no need to enlist Gustafson in the ranks of the postmodern. He succeeds well enough in his own terms. He illustrates the virtues of intelligence, compassion and painstaking craft. He defends a humanism that can recognize yet withstand the assaults of recent criticism, which treats humanism as a self-serving ideology. He demonstrates the validity of "voice" and "place" as poetic "dispositions" that reveal what Gustafson calls "worthwhile evidence of the progress of a soul"(162). McCarthy in turn proves that Gustafson's admirable work has secured a place in Canadian literature.

Jon Kertzer