- A Lover's Quarrel: Essays and Reviews
Carmine Starnino has a reputation for combative reviews that are often 'fantastically rude or intemperately dismissive.' Starnino can be both amusing and infuriating, and his accumulated antagonists frequently charge that his negative reviews are insubstantial grandstanding. A Lover's Quarrel attempts to prove that he is not simply a 'boy gunman' shooting down 'celebrated poet[s]' but a critic whose individual judgments are based on a thorough knowledge of Canadian literary history and a personal investment in the art of poetry.
In his introduction, Starnino argues that his most caustic moments (which are often his most witty) result from genuine anger at 'unmerited neglect,' 'overblown fanfare,' and 'the circumstances conspiring to ensure that poems in this country continue to be crudely read.' He considers it the reviewer's central duty to be sceptical and to convey that scepticism in vivid prose. Vivid prose, he argues, is the sign of passionate engagement. Biases distinguish personal responses from the consensus opinions that are the villains of his narrative.
The title essay, previously unpublished, is a partisan survey of the history of Canadian poetry criticism. Starnino argues that we (loosely here) have rejected the traditional standards for poetry, and, in turn, been rejected by international readers for failing to write up to standards. The desire for a distinctly Canadian poetry puts artificial limitations on a poet's engagement with the language and its literary tradition. Critics and academics, [End Page 413] 'the establishment,' have misdirected our poetry by studying it as cultural vessel rather than aesthetic achievement and by confusing cultural with literary importance in early writers like Bliss Carman and Archibald Lampman. For Starnino, privileging cultural value regardless of poetic gift authorized the humble, vernacular slackness he casts as the 'official' voice of Canadian poetry. Its exemplars have fostered a legion of imitators who buy into this consensus opinion. Against their example, Starnino sets several poets whose works meet international standards but whose reputations are generally overshadowed by the 'official' poets. Given their due, Starnino suggests, his alternative canon would elevate the international profile of Canadian poetry generally. The reviews that follow reflect these convictions.
Starnino's arguments suffer from his over-reliance on two spurious tactics. First, he oversimplifies the positions of his targets. In the title essay, for example, Starnino calls discussions of colonial influence on poetry by English Canadians an 'intellectually appalling' appropriation of the dilemma faced by Caribbean poets or Southeast Asian poets (among others). Rather than explore the distinction between poetry that contends with the legacy of being a settler colony and the poetry of cultures that have suffered colonial rule, Starnino offers bald indignation. Myopically, he also ignores Aboriginal English-language poets and Canadian poets like Dionne Brand and George Elliott Clarke whose heritage and experience resemble Derek Walcott's or Edward Kamau Brathwaite's more closely than Patrick Lane's or Margaret Atwood's. Second, he constructs rhetorical tricks that collapse when scrutinized. In 'Canadian Poetry as a Busted Flush,' Starnino inverts the sentence order of a poem by E.D. Blodgett to suggest that the poem never 'forces a reader to confront the words-as-arranged as inevitable.' That Blodgett's poem submits to this kind of revision, common practice for most writers because different syntactical arrangements produce subtly different versions on a main theme or thought, proves very little. Too often, when Starnino offers these short 'demonstrations' they lead to suspect conclusions, and he does not seem to have anticipated the possible negative impact should his audience see through them.
This is not an academic book, nor does it really try to be. There are no notes, and there is no apparatus to support the voluminous quotes. The reviews appear without their former head matter and without an original publication date or source, thwarting attempts to trace a narrative of development in Starnino's thinking. This is a more public form of criticism animated by the passion and instinctive affinities of a poet, and so, like many critical works by poets, it will be most useful...