As you’ve probably already gleaned if you follow us on Twitter and Facebook, I have a bit of a soft spot for literary criticism. It seems an odd thing to say outside of academic circles, I know. After all, while many of us are quite happy to scan a book review in the newspaper or a short thought-piece in a magazine, the fact of the matter is, the last time most people pick up an actual book of literary criticism is usually in a fourth year undergraduate seminar. And good luck finding that dusty copy in your personal library.
But this is a mistake.
To my mind, the job of the critic is so tough because he or she must possess the literary background of a university professor, the argumentative clout of a lawyer, the writing ability of an award-winning poet, and (probably) the backbone and fortitude of a prizefighter. Some of my favourite PQL books in the last few years have been literary criticism. I have become very fond of the humour and pop culture references that pepper Jason Guriel’s The Pigheaded Soul, not to mention the author’s ability to amuse and entertain while charmingly eviscerating the inconsistency and imprecision in North American poetry. And then there’s Jeet Heer’s Sweet Lechery, a book chock full of contextual information on a dizzying array of subjects, but dispensed in such a way as to seem nearly effortless on the part of the author.
About the Book
The essays in Strike Anywhere pulls together the best of both worlds—the witty, engaging, occasionally scathing but always precise style and panache of a wordsmith along with the structure and logic of an organized and intelligent mind. A heady combination for any word nerd.
The essays, cheekily deemed ‘arsons’ by the author, consider the poetry of veterans and newcomers alike, as well as the cultural value of some of television’s mainstays. The pieces form a commentary on contemporary authorship—on what it means to be a writer, on the pitfalls and possibilities that every writer must at some point face. It helps us remember that literature doesn’t exist in a vacuum, that artistry is in some ways responsibility.
And it is just plain fun to read. I have something of a literary crush on the deft social commentary and exquisite vocabulary. Check out the excerpt below and you’ll see what I mean.
Pulled from the Pages
Every Canadian poet has an opinion of Carmine Starnino, and yet his detractors dislike him precisely because he has opinions. When it comes to aesthetics—or at least as they pertain to poetry—Canadians are still Victorians: opinions are fine and all, but they’re best kept buried deep within the whalebone corset. Or they’re like the Sikh Kirpan, kept sharpened but sheathed, a symbol of the truth’s shearing triumph over falsity, only ever drawn if someone else dares disturb the peace and draw his first. And if the time does indeed come for us to start getting stabby, for God’s sake do the polite thing—the Canadian thing—and stab me in the back and not in the front, please-and-thank-you, so as to avoid all the awkward eye contact.
Is this the case in the rest of the English-speaking poetry world? Here the poet-critic is at best a tattletale and at worst a scab. They’re also, if they dare to write what’s pejoratively called ‘evaluative criticism’, some sort of throwback to a bygone, benighted era when one poem could be better than another. And that’s just according to the poets. I have it on good authority, for example, that an earlier, shorter version of one of the pieces in Starnino’s most recent book of criticism, Lazy Bastardism , on Margaret Atwood, was spiked by one of our daily national newspapers because the appraisal of Atwood (who in Canada is somewhere between a cottage industry and living god-head) was ‘negative’.
Starnino is particularly despised by the nebulous consortia we can call the avant-garde; in fact if the avant-garde is a contemporary kind of apophatic theology, disliking Starnino might very well be the via negativa that consecrates your membership. The flower of that hatred stems from a single essay, a review from Starnino’s more combative first book, of Christian Bök’s Eunoia (an essay more understood than read) which he deliciously titled, after a Daryl Hine poem published in these pages, ‘Vowel Movements’. And his name is sort of a general smear too. After I published a piece of criticism that can broadly be called ‘negative’, the poet Sina Queyras tweeted that I remind her of Starnino. She meant this as an insult….
About the Author
Michael Lista is an acclaimed poet, editor, critic, and non-fiction writer. He is the author of two collections of poetry: Bloom (House of Anansi, 2010) and The Scarborough (Signal Editions, 2014). He served as poetry editor of The Walrus and as poetry columnist for The National Post. His non-fiction appears in The Atlantic, Slate, The Walrus and Toronto Life. Lista is the co-founder of Partisan Magazine. He lives in Toronto.
In conclusion, if you are a fan of good writing, you really should give these essays a try. You don’t need to read it all in one sitting, but it is refreshing every once in a while to take a moment to appreciate the craft that goes into each and every one of these essays. (NB: the final essay in the collection, “The Shock Absorber” will make you rethink everything you thought you knew about Canadian poetry.)