Monday, March 05, 2007

Reader's Diary #236- Margaret Atwood (Foreward), Aislin (Illustrations): Barbed Lyres, Canadian Venomous Verse (FINISHED!)

Ever watch reruns of Air Farce on the Comedy network? Of course not, nobody does. Why not? Satirical shows, the ones that rely so heavily on current news for fodder, get dated too quickly. I'm not sure whose brainy idea it was to syndicate it in the first place, but they're probably the same ones who felt a hardcover was necessary for Barbed Lyres.

Hardcovers are great. They give your bookshelf that nice pretentious look and provide you with the joys of carpal tunnel syndrome when you read in bed. But poetry books don't often come in hardcover. Publishers, I'm assuming, don't anticipate a great profit from poetry and most likely don't want to reduce it even further by investing in hardcovers. Did the geniuses at Key Porter books think this was going to make a buck? If so, it's probably worth noting that it's no longer in print and I got my copy from a discard pile at the local library.

But is it good? Not really. Maybe it was in its day. It's not exactly terrible, it's always interesting to see what (other) amateur poets are capable of, and it's not often I get exposure to satirical poetry. Published in 1990, Barbed Lyres is a collection of entries in a contest sponsored by This Magazine who asked for satirical poems on any subject. In addition, Barbed Lyres contains poems from "professional" poets who were invited to submit (though were not eligible for the contest).

So why isn't it good? Primarily it's the Air Farce rerun syndrome. It's too dated. Entrants of course shouldn't be criticized for writing about what was relevant back in the day, but it's hard to appreciate all the Meech Lake and Free Trade jokes this far after the fact. Other targets I've either completely forgotten about or wasn't even aware of at the time. Though I did learn that Peter Mansbridge used to be married to Wendy Mesley. Am I the last Canadian to learn that? It's probably on citizenship exams.

But it's also the poems themselves. I called the poets amateur earlier. Some are. Some no doubt could have crossed over to professional (reciting poems at a local coffee house while a friend strums quietly on a mandolin). The majority however, seem as if they hadn't so much as read a Hallmark greeting card. Of the bad ones, these can be broken down into two categories: those that try too hard and those that don't try hard enough. Those that try too hard throw in latin, french or Old English as a joke and often begin with "with apologies to Keats" or some other dead poet we're all supposed to be well acquainted with. Those that didn't try hard enough made fun of Mulroney's chin. Neither camp had any sense of rhythm. I'm not trying to be cruel, but I am suggesting that the publication of these poems smacks of those "National Poetry" gimmicks which publishes your poem and sells you a book. They prey on people's egos.

To be fair, some were great. And not just professionals either (though Susan Musgrave's "Canadian Roulette" was my favourite. ) Martha Hillhouse of Vancouver brilliantly satirizes an everyday experience, infusing a healthy dose of sexuality in a shopping trip to the local Safeway (14 years before Desperate Housewives). Plus, it's a poem, a real poem, complete with imagery, experimental use of language (no periods, capitals, and so forth). Bill Curry of Wynyard, Saskatchewan writes a superb epigram call "Canada Hold Your Water" about the selling of one of our most precious resources and ending in an extremely clever (and funny) pun. These didn't win. Judged by Margaret Atwood, Allan Fotheringham and Nancy White, the winners seemed to have been picked at random. They're not the best in the book, nor the worst. Satire to be fair, would be a hard thing to judge. Everyone's sense of humour is unique.

Another problem with the book was the layout. Asides from putting the winners at the front, and a poem entitled "Ode to Barbed Lyres et al" at the end, there's no apparent rhyme or reason in the placement of the poems. Topics jumped from hockey, to Ronald Reagan, to the CBC and back again. Likewise celebrity and professional poets had their work scattered throughout willy-nilly. Poems were not alphabetized. Nothing. It was rather jarring. Asides from asking political cartoonist Aislin to illustrate, little thought seems to have gone into the production.


Allison said...

Hey, I watch the Air Farce reruns....even if they are dated. Peter Mansbridge used to be married to Wendy Mesley?

However, despite my affinity for the satirical rerun, you're very right that much is lost when viewing/reading old news. I find the same when watching news online, from even weeks past. I've never really attributed this syndrome to books before though, so I enjoyed reading your take.

Barbara Bruederlin said...

C'mon John, don't hold back - tell us what you really thought!

I hope you didn't spend too much time reading this. I would be depressed that I would never get those 2 months back (because that's how long it takes me to read anything anymore).

But I did know about the former Mansbridge/Mesley union, and thus feel superiorly Canadian. Or perhaps just older.

John Mutford said...

Allison, I should admit that I, on occasion, do find myself watching reruns of 22 Minutes. Mostly to see Rick, Greg and Mary Walsh together again. I guess I was being slightly sarcastic to make a point. There is some merit to the reruns.

And no Barbara, I didn't spend too much time reading it. I read it during Canada Reads week.