Ephemeris by Norm Sibum


I was told to smile and do friendly talk. Accordingly, I am smiling and doing friendly talk. Not that what follows is in any way important, literature not much more now than a spectator sport, as is any stand-off between barroom arm wrestlers. But even so, an evening vouchsafed to poetry by way of a panel of critics (who also write the stuff – poetry, that is); an evening consecrated to – what? – the explication of, the interpretation of, the bashing of, the treating with poems in some way or other; an evening devoted to the separating of stalwarts from dullards, was had at the Word Bookstore. It was had under the aegis of ‘What We Talk About When We Talk About Poetry’. Alright then. The panel, moderated by one of this fair nation’s leading literary lights, when all the dust had settled, seemed to have acquitted itself well. The Moesian thought so, and because he can be a surly bastard, I was inclined to take his ‘take’ on the matter. But then the man might have been preoccupied by the antics of Putin and American neo-libs gadding about in their stretch pants and limos, not to mention our very own Clown Prince and our very own Dragon Lady and the cartwheels they were effecting. In light of such events, how earth-shaking was this panel? Not that it had to be anything but sedate so as to ‘get the job done’. How critical were the critics to some emerging new canon, the panel a sort of Council of Nicaea? We had been at the Benelux prior to the evening’s main event, and there the Moesian pulled a hockey analogy on me, that cheapest of tricks, and likened what Putin had done to the west to a hockey player pulling the jersey of his opposite number over his head, thus rendering pugilism futile as well as ridiculous to the eye. Even the barmaid was amused by the metaphor, pleased that she had a client as clever and as handsome as my friend to serve drinks to. But like I said, the panel seemed to have conducted itself with a modicum of aplomb, just that one was somewhat exercised by the fact that literature, or whatever the thing is now, appeared to exist at the pleasure of one of the critics: he had only to raise an eyebrow and entire civilizations could vanish in a trice. He was big on the amusement factor, or as Maximus roared it at the crowd come to watch gory gladiatorial encounters in ancient Rome (as reconfigured by the film industry): “Are you not entertained?” It would seem the critic had not very high expectations of literature and, truth to tell, why should he, because who has? It is possible but not certain that he deemed whatever expectations literature once chanced to have satisfied as illusory; that they amounted to nothing more than conjurations; were in their aggregate overblown hype in a time when overblown hype was not yet a primary marketing tool for anyone partaking of even the smallest smidgen of an economy. In this way do state-subsidized mediocrities draw the wagons around themselves. In this way is ‘great literature’ a mirage. The sentiment no longer obtains that one would rather fail at greatness than succeed as a hack. One was somewhat exercised by the fact that another of the critics confessed she had not ‘read’ much literature (there being so much of it to read or so, one assumes); she certainly had not read enough of it as to have acquired for herself – what? – a standard or two however amenable to the rigors of a level playing-field? And was one then to trust one’s own discernment whilst at the mercy of her gut judgments? Still, she appeared to be a nice enough young woman; she was not obviously nasty or vindictive; she was not shamelessly in the palm of any particular lobby group; she did not seem to have acquired the practice of literature so as to compensate for a failure in character or a dubious upbringing. She was sincere through and through to the extent that she had on her plate a conflicted conscience, and we all of us know that a ‘conflicted conscience’ was once a tell-tale sign that one was in the presence of human sentience. One might say, in respect to this good woman, that criticism is a thankless job. The third member of the triad spoke well and with a tad more charisma than his immediate fellows. Still, he did not seem to say anything that was not already self-evident, especially if one has been reading and writing poetry for years and reflecting on it in a ‘critical’ sense for as long as a gnat has a sex life; and in that respect, there were sufficient numbers in the crowd of the same, that is to say, persons who have been reading and writing for eons and – you get the idea: the crowd in attendance was very likely a learned crowd. Why then the necessity for the empanellment in the first instance? Just which Square One was being re-visited? Whose empire was being extended or consolidated or christened? Well, poetry is in trouble. Poetry is troubled. The health of our literature is up for grabs and most definitely in question. For all that, critics pull on their jockstraps just like any garden variety athlete; we here, for one, do not understand why they are beheld with such awe. Oh – right: the prize, the grant, the favourable obit, not to mention the incidental question of sales. But poetry has always been in trouble. The effort to ram it down the public’s throat at tax payer expense has only exacerbated the trouble. And then, as London Lunar puts it: “One fights tooth and nail for a clump of dirt with its single blade of grass, and this clump turns out to be not Literary Valhalla but a cowpat.” If the trick of time passing would have it that any time past is a Golden Age in retrospect, well then, if you want to boost your rep, you may as well eff off and die tout de suite. Otherwise we here for the most part ignore critics, though critics are necessary and yet, so many have so little to say. We here for the most part ignore literary politics, but literary politics are apparently necessary, if only because it might chance upon a genuine conversation that stuffy literary reviews pretend do not exist. Were we speaking of empire building? Ah, the Little Pond of CanLit. The Little Pond That Could. Well, I am all for it; always have been. But you know, one can pay one’s dues to the political party of one’s choice and yet suspect one’s party leaders to be either corrupt or short-sighted or some kind of species of wing nut Babbitts, depending on which part of the political spectrum gives them their succour. And such a cozy Little Pond it is, the Moesian has remarked with just a touch of whimsy to his ‘make my day’ tone of voice, and Mr ZWells seemed to have seconded that emotion in his accounting of things, he – as a member of the panel – one of the more amiable beasts straight out of the Book of Revelations. Or was it Mr Guriel I heard floating the trial balloon of a critique into the air? In any case, voilà! A book materializes. The fun begins. Now we get to argue the transubstantiations, the tripartite trinities of literary theory; the pretty threnodies; those blasted parts of speech; the gender calling cards and twisted plots. We get to use our dipstick and check moral ascendancy levels, the lubrication that allows the engine to run without seizing up. And then, equally voilà! and the damn thing disappears seemingly overnight and with such alacrity that no forensics genius can henceforth ever prove that the item was ever on anyone’s review list. It is a veritable black hole, that Little Pond, seeing as one might speculate that with so many books having disappeared in like manner, a stairway to the celestial spheres must by now have been erected, visibly so to the unaided eye. At any rate, I am smiling and doing friendly talk. I am willing to wager that, this little post notwithstanding, one could locate in the archives of twenty years ago, even forty years ago, like-minded posts, only that they would be essays or op-ed pieces or recognizable reviews of a by-gone media and so, perhaps no longer eligible for consideration. Literature-by-Committee! Here is the concept I was looking for, the segue this: it could be that writers and editors still have some say in the matter there on the fringes of the pond, but that bureaucrats and accountants control the game. Since when has a review been something other than the skeletal remains of what used to house a functioning mind? Or, as one sits at the counter in the Universel Déjeuners et Grillades on St Denis, wondering what the hell happened, asper a bemused recollection of Lane kicking the crap out of McFadden in the Cecil Hotel urinal (Vancouver, 19odd70), one might detect the flitting by of the imprint of a gravitational ripple from the old Glory Days on one’s serviette.