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The Pigheaded Soul by Jason Guriel  

The Pigheaded Soul is a collection of acclaimed poet and critic Jason Guriel’s intelligent, sometimes controversial reviews, essays, and anecdotes on poetry and culture in North America.

The Pigheaded Soul presents a series of witty, intelligent, and sometimes controversial essays in which talented newcomers and avowed masters alike find themselves within the literary crosshairs of acclaimed poet and critic Jason Guriel.

Guriel does not shy away from the negative review, nor does he begrudge praise where praise is due. He applauds the innovative and evocative, rails against the lazy and the imprecise, and critiques the ‘hipster’ mentality of so-called avant-gardists who use the same tired tricks as shortcuts to perceived innovation. But far from providing only reviews and critical readings, The Pigheaded Soul serves up amusing insider anecdotes about the poetry community, from intelligent examinations of inspiration and imagination, to gonzo reportage of high-profile – and occasionally absurd – literary events.

Wry, engaging, and astute, Guriel writes with a confidence and panache that enlivens the often dry and dusty field of literary criticism.


2014—ForeWord IndieFab Book of the Year Award,

Table of contents


     How I Learned to Survive without Margaret Atwood (Daryl Hine)
     The World’s Not-so-secret Admirer (Eric Ormsby)
     New-fangled, Old-fangled (George Johnston, Jeramy Dodds)
     Flaking Off Beautifully (Anne Carson)
     Autobiography of Reader (Anne Carson)
     Godno (Dennis Lee)
     Manufacturing Conceits (George Murray)
     Full of It (Nick Thran)
     Primordial Muse (Shane Neilson)
     Travel Writing (Elise Partridge)
     Moon Dreams (Don Coles)
     Child’s Play (Suzanne Buffam)
     Lost and Found (Brian Bartlett)
     Griffin Poetry Prize Field Notes
     War of the Words

     All Ears: Phone Calls to an Old Poet (Samuel Menashe)
     Two Minds (William Logan)
     Perfect Contempt (Dorothy Parker)
     The Pigheaded Soul (Kay Ryan)
     The Poetry in the Prose
     A Big Star Implodes (Alex Chilton)
     Lovable Losers (Nicholson Baker, Roberto Bolaño)
     The Kindness of Second Readings (Frederick Goddard Tuckerman)
     Chain of Fools (Seamus Heaney)
     Sub-Seuss (e. e. cummings)
     The Spectric Poets (Anne Knish and Emanuel Morgan)
     Not Just Poetry (Jorie Graham, Allen Grossman, Davis McCombs,
          Sarah Hannah)
     Words Fail Him (Charles Bernstein)
     Going Negative (Jane Mead, D. A. Powell, John Poch)

Review text

Using humor, sarcasm, allegory, metaphor—and a little time travel—Guriel shows how poems succeed.

The Pigheaded Soul: Essays and Reviews on Poetry and Culture offers thoughtful and critical analyses of some of North America’s most esteemed poets and their works. Jason Guriel’s perceptive critiques are conveyed through poignant and pointed prose that more than effectively pinpoints his chief sources of displeasure and admiration.

This collection of essays begins with an examination of Canadian poet Daryl Hine and goes on to explore others, from Anne Carson to Dorothy Parker to Seamus Heaney. By discussing the literary quality of these poets’ works, Guriel not only offers his educated opinion on which poets are the most successful but also explains in exacting detail how the poems succeed. His keen eye focuses line by line, even word by word, to dissect the craft of a poem, and he uses the same vigilance when considering the poet’s entire body of work.

Guriel’s lyrical language is host to an abundance of allegory and metaphor that perfectly harmonize the nature of each poet’s work with the style they choose to employ (though you’ll likely have to have read the poets of which Guriel speaks to truly understand what he’s talking about): "[Eric Ormsby] collects animals, too, but he’s poetry’s most liberal zookeeper since Marianne Moore. Like Moore, he’s not after big game; his poetry consistently sides with the underdogs and squatters who occupy all of those aforementioned cracks, crevices, corners and alcoves: arter snakes, moths, spiders—critters few hunters would want to bag and stuff. Ormsby, then, is not hunter; he’s a pack rat, and his body of work is a richly musty flea market of poetic curios and near-obsolete words, lovingly collected."

The "and Culture" part of the book’s subtitle comes in as Guriel often connects the intricacies of a poem to a larger context. For example, in the title essay, "The Pigheaded Soul," Guriel briefly investigates the naming and organizing of a collection of poems, observing that, speaking sarcastically from a future perspective, "titles of their books are borrowed from randomly deputized poems" and that "poetry collections were organized by narrative arcs, those starchy structures that feel to us, in the 2030s, as odd and constricting as the undergarments of an earlier, more decadent age." This essay also shows how Guriel can effectively use humor to reveal cultural shifts: "It was a weird time, the turn of the century. A majority of poets still taught in MFA programs as opposed to MBA programs (that’s Master of Blogging Arts, of course)." Guriel never forgets that poets live in the context of their world rather than in some elusive literary universe.

Jason Guriel’s own work has been published in Slate, Parnassus, Reader’s Digest, and others, and he was the first Canadian poet to receive the Frederick Bock Prize from Poetry magazine, in 2007.

Guriel is a critic’s critic (or, more specifically, a poetry critic’s poetry critic). The audience for this book is decidedly slim: critics seeking examples on essay review craft and lessons on digging deep, and poets seeking to expand their writing techniques (though geared more toward pleasing readers and critics rather than expressing an image or emotion), will find insight in Guriel’s analyses. Writers of prose, too, may benefit from looking past the seemingly limited content of the book and observing Guriel’s melodic and effective language choices to discover new, inventive, awe-worthy ways of conveying an abstract idea.

—Aimee Jodoin, Foreword Reviews

Review quote

‘What sets Guriel apart is the inescapable tone of his writing. It’s obvious from reading him: he is having fun. He cares about poetry and its aesthetics enough to deeply engage in a jolly way.’

—Micheline Maylor, Quill & Quire

Review quote

Guriel’s most important attribute ... is his writing: concise, with creative turns of phrase, surprising and apt lexical choices, skeptical, allusive, unstuffy and unafraid to stick his neck out with evaluations.... Guriel is foremost a curious reader who’s arrogant enough to believe his opinions matter (reviewers, in general, need more of that arrogance).

—Brian Palmu

Review quote

’Jason Guriel’s often-stated belief that poetry should entertain is provocative for certain, and he enjoys the role of provocateur. His glib pronouncements on a bad poet (Jane Mead, for example, is "less poet than stenographer," a barb almost as good as Mordecai Richler’s deft consignment to hell of Frederick Philip Grove as "a good speller") are great fun, and make his reviews and essays themselves good entertainment.’

—Bruce Whiteman, Canadian Notes & Queries

Review quote

’[The Pigheaded Soul] establishes [Jason Guriel] as the most incisive, well-informed, and entertaining poetry critic in Canada’

—Maurice Mierau, Contemporary Verse 2

Review quote

Again and again Guriel opens a poem to show the reader its construction, increasing my admiration not only for Guriel, and (if the poem proves solid) for the poet who made the poem, but also for the discipline (!) of poetry as a whole.

—Mary W. Walters

Unpublished endorsement

‘Jason Guriel’s The Pigheaded Soul immediately vaults him into the first rank of poetry critics. He manages, in nearly every sentence, to seem amiable, incorruptible and incisive. His survey of Canadian poetry is without rival; his views on American poetry are utterly fresh. I will be consulting this book for a very, very long time into the future.’

—Dan Chiasson

Introduction or preface

When I was younger, I had the habit of imagining what I’d say, were I a rock critic, about this or that album. But such grey literature, dreamed up for the back pages of music trades, was almost always left untyped at the back of my mind. (The one review that escaped my skull: a letter to the editor of Mojo, in which Radiohead is taken to task for its pretentiousness by a pigheaded twentysomething.) My first real reviews were commissioned by a literary magazine, now defunct, that had requested to see some poems, but found nothing to its liking. Several submissions were dispatched; nothing took. In what was surely a last-ditch attempt to get something of mine into print (and save all parties any further embarrassment) the editors wondered if I might like to try reviewing a collection of poetry. That might shut me up.

New assignments resulted in commissions from other magazines: book review begat book review. In the generally dull world of poetry criticism, a remotely sharp judgment will tend to perk the ears of editors who like a little edge, even if some readers elect to call the noise they hear a “hatchet job.” Those conspiracy theorists who assume I have an axe to grind should be assured that the whetstone was usually someone else’s idea.

Put another way, The Pigheaded Soul was written largely by accident, under the radar of even its author, who apparently couldn’t bring himself to turn down too many gigs. The few times I vowed to get out of the game and back to poems, some editor always pulled me back in. Before I could reconsider, I had embarked on yet another criticism spree.

(... Continued in The Pigheaded Soul)

—Jason Guriel, Toronto, 2012


Jason Guriel is a poet and critic whose work has appeared in such influential publications as Poetry, Reader’s Digest, The Walrus, Parnassus, Canadian Notes & Queries, The New Criterion, and PN Review. His poetry has been anthologized in The Best Canadian Poetry in English, and in 2007, he was the first Canadian to receive the Frederick Bock Prize from Poetry magazine. He won Poetry’s Editors Prize for Book Reviewing in 2009. Guriel lives in Toronto, Ontario.

You can reach Jason Guriel on Twitter at @jasonguriel

The Porcupine's Quill would like to acknowledge the support of the Ontario Arts Council and the Canada Council for the Arts for our publishing program. The financial support of the Government of Canada through the Canada Book Fund (CBF) is also gratefully acknowledged.

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ISBN-13: 9780889843684

Publication Date: 2013-11-15

Dimensions: 8.75 in x 5.56 in

Pages: 272

Price: $22.95