Friday, November 07, 2008

Reader's Diary #411- George McWhirter: The Anachronicles

Do publishers realize what a risky undertaking blurbs are?

On the back on George McWhirter's latest book of poetry, The Anachronicles, Gary Geddes is quoted as saying,
"...with an ear alert to the music in words and the power of the
decasyllabic line, George McWhirter uses his fertile imagination and firm grasp of Shakespearean blank verse to do what poetry must always do — make history strange. The result is a wonderfully crazy romp through then and now."
My problem isn't that I don't know who Gary Geddes is. Perhaps he's popular in some poetry circles. Perhaps he's not. If I needed reviews from well-known people, I wouldn't have started reading litblogs in the first place. My issue is with Geddes' comments.

I'll begin with the "decasyllabic line" and "Shakespearean blank verse." I'm not opposed to learning the technical side of poetry. It often makes me appreciate the work put into a piece, (whether I believe it is always done with such acute awareness or not is another issue) but rarely does it give me a greater appreciation of the poem. It's like all those guitar solos of 80s rock. Impressive musicianship yes, but it didn't necessarily make me care for the songs.

I also resent Geddes comment about "what poetry must do." Why does Geddes get to decide this? I read yet another critique of litblogs recently that suggested the reviews were too personal with their "I think," "I feel," and "in my opinion" comments. This person seemed to take it as a sign of passivity or weakness. Well, I don't agree. I think the majority of litbloggers just want to discuss an opinion but are respectful that others may disagree. More emphasis is put on the discourse rather than the top-down "you should read this" or "what poetry must do" dictations more common in journals and newspapers. And no, I don't agree that poetry must do any one thing, certainly not to "make history strange." If poetry is to have any relationship with history, I personally would prefer it to provide some clarity, perhaps cast it in a new light that brings a greater understanding. But that's just me. And that's not being humble.

Why dwell on Geddes comments? Why will my review of his 5 line blurb will be longer than of Whirter's book? Because it just about ruined the whole thing for me. Normally I'm able to look past such silly comments. This time, however, my defenses were a little down. I've been suffering through a great cold and a great workload this past week and my mind just hasn't been functioning adequately. So, when I didn't immediately understand or connect on any emotional level to any phrase, let alone an entire poem, I mistook Geddes opinion to be McWhirter's. The poet, or so I thought, was aiming to confound: why bother trying to work it out? I didn't have the strength even had I wanted to.

Fortunately, I was recovering by the fifth poem (there are only 5 long poems in the book), and I started to enjoy it. "Hops" is about the goddess of poetry, Liadan, and a poet named Cuirithir. As the Irish legend goes, they were to be married, but instead she wed the King of Heaven. I've found a few tellings of it online. Here is one that focuses on the repercussions:

He, however, went on pilgrimage and settled in Cell Letrech in the land of the Déisi. She came to seek him and said:

that deed which I have done:
what I loved I have vexed.

Were it not for fear of the King of Heaven,
it had been madness for one
who would not do what Cuirithic wished.

Not profitless to him
was that which he desired,
to reach Heaven and avoid pain.

A trifle vexed Cuirithir
in regard to me;
my gentleness towards him was great.

I am Liadan;
I loved Cuirithir;
this is as true as any­thing told.

For a short time I was
in the company of Cuirithir;
to be with me was profitable to him.

Forest music used to sing
to me beside Cuirithir,
together with the sound of the fierce sea.

I should have thought that no arrangement
I might make would have
vexed Cuirithir in regard to me.

Conceal it not:
he was my heart’s love,
even though I should love all others besides.

A roar of fire
has split my heart;
without him for certain it will not live.

Now, the way she had vexed him was her haste in taking the veil

McWhirter makes the legend even more interesting by retelling it as a dialogue between the two characters living in Ireland and Canada, and spanning from the last millenium to the 1950s. Just introducing me to such a fantastic legend would have salvaged the book for me, but recasting it in such a bizarre light was even more impressive. I'm sure I didn't pick up on all the themes yet (fulfillment's role in inspiration and religious interference might be possibilities) let alone make sense of McWhirter's point. But, I want to reread it. That's where Geddes description fails. He seems to suggest that trying to comprehend history is futile. McWhirter inspires me to try anyway.

"[...]As odd as listening with them
for the explosions as gannets dive
through the looking glass of salt water
in whose glare I go as blind and sorrowful as Saul
at finding my image there, instead of hers. She said
she would go where I would never get her.
Her freedom from the body would be an education
for the soul. She left to work
along the Pacific coast [...]"

from "Hops"
George McWhirter, 2008
Anachronicles, published by Ronsdale Press


Sandra said...

Interesting thoughts. I'm glad you gave the work a chance to speak for itself. I'd like to know exactly what Geddes means by "poetry must...make history strange". I'm sure he knew what he meant but I don't think most people would. No wonder so many people still feel that poetry is not accessible to them.

Barbara Bruederlin said...

I think Geddes blurb is an example of what happens when you write these things on a Friday evening after a few too many glasses of wine. The words just flow and flow! They don't necessarily make any sense, but they sure do sound nice.

I speak from experience.