April 2009

Contents Related Letters

Re: “Private Thoughts in Public Language,” by Ian Hacking

Ian Hacking may be on to something, but he seems a tad off-centre and obsessive in attributing “autism” to Douglas Coupland’s JPod. Coupland’s laid-back, West Coast characters give a damn about one another, from Ethan’s ethereally earthy parents on down, as when two podsters fly to Hong Kong to rescue an errant third from a heroin-assisted addiction to an assembly line. The pod itself may at times appear autistic but never nihilistic, and most visionary works portray a self-referential world inside the author’s mind, like the distant bubble-world in Charles Heavysege’s The Revolt of Tartarus, whose inhabitants do not revolt because they have not been programmed to, something like Canada vis-à-vis the United States.

ln Coupland’s hastily rewritten last episode of the first version of JPod—cancelled by the CBC just when it was beginning to develop a cult following (circa March 2008)—the pod breaks up and Ethan accepts a job offer from San Francisco. This unforeseen and undesired development must have brought about a belated change of heart in the Mother Corp., as there followed a summer-long rerun with its Joycean-cum-McLuhanesque apotheosis of the robot that hugs you to death (a pity Hacking missed it).

Hail and farewell to JPod, that whale of a pod with its genially satiric aura, vivifying Asian faces of both sexes and futuristic outlook. Whales do it.

Warren Stevenson
White Rock, British Columbia

Re: “Choosing the Best Canadian Poetry,” by James Pollock

My thanks to Fraser Sutherland for his genial response, but I take issue with three points.

He blames the poor state of poetry criticism in Canada, in part, on the “dismal landscape” of our institutional literary culture—blogs, prizes, journals, workshops, subsidies, public readings, poetry organizations—but I am impatient with this familiar line of complaint. The form the institutions take does not matter. What matters is that well-read, energetic, honest critics—who write well—devote themselves to writing criticism. We are not talking about producing operas here. True, critics need venues, and fortunately they’ve got some. But otherwise, all they need is a bit of time, a few review copies and a laptop. Let our best potential critics stop making excuses and get to work.

I’m more sympathetic when Sutherland blames literary theory, especially post-structuralism, for the decline of evaluative criticism; I refer interested readers to Rónán McDonald’s useful recent book, The Death of the Critic. But let’s not get carried away. Sutherland attacks the supposedly destructive influence of Frye and Atwood, but Frye, besides being a great theorist and interpreter, and therefore extraordinarily helpful to interpretive and evaluative critics, was the finest evaluative critic of Canadian poetry we had in the 1950s. See his reviews in The Bush Garden. As for Atwood, I do not agree that Survival is deplorable. It has nothing to do with evaluative criticism, but as cultural theory it is brilliant. The problem is not that the influence of Frye and Atwood was too strong. It is that, in the last half of the 20th century, no other critic in Canada was strong enough.

Finally, to answer Sutherland’s question about my disappointment with so many of the poets of Atwood’s generation: I am dismayed, in reading Purdy, Newlove and MacEwen, by their poverty of technique. I am with him when he writes that “craftsmanship is no guarantee of … good poetry.” I’ve never heard anyone say it is. But surely it is a prerequisite. Against craftsmanship Sutherland cites Whitman of all poets, that master of rhetoric and free-verse prosody, so he is apparently confusing craftsmanship with traditional formalism. To say my “critical tastes lean toward the formalist” is therefore incorrect; I value technical mastery, whether avant-garde, formalist or otherwise, because it is indispensable to good poetry. Of course, I value other things too—imagination, intelligence, emotion, sensuousness, moral force, spiritual insight, innovation, engagement with tradition—but if the technique is weak, I am just not interested.

James Pollock
Madison, Wisconsin

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