28 October 2007

Byrne on George Stanley's A Tall Serious Girl

The poems are not all comfortable being together, although I guess it was inevitable. It’s almost like an assemblage of possible books. . . . Or: boy’s own serials; post-surrealist assemblage; sixteenth century English verse; nineteenth century opera; several intoxicants, including sex and camaraderie, all in moderation; the city and that which is not the city (800 mile distant suburbs); the Berkeley Renaissance; the Leisure Poets; exception; Cubist collage; the New York Schools; Bolinas without Buddhism. Or: hyperpoetical; gnomic; apoetical; workerist; erotic; socio-political, but always familial; metaphysical; diaristic. In all of which diversity, in all of its stammering, its perfect articulations, the poetry enacts a grasping after “the poem”.
. . .

There is an ideology of the poem that stitches all of this together. The poem as miracle, as gift or force (“The poem wrestles you / to the ground”). The poem, or its source, is something greater than the individual poem; the poet is the vessel of the poem; writing is a writing toward, or an anticipation of the event of the poem (“just keep writing this silly shit & pray for a poem”). This is then dissimulated by a nonchalance, or an anxiety—a structural denial.

George Stanley, A Tall Serious Girl. Jamestown: Qua Books, 2003.

Reviewed by Ted Byrne
The Rain 2:4 (July-August 2004): 6

20 October 2007

Some Select Analysis of Barry McKinnon's The Centre, Poems 1970-2000

Barry McKinnon was born and brought up in Calgary, went to universities in Montreal and Vancouver, and has been since 1969 the central figure in the surprising literary center of Prince George. He is an editor and publisher of contemporary poetry, and a leader and instructor for many younger writers. His poetry manages the very difficult feat of tracing the brain’s music while criticizing the depredations of late-industrial imperialism.
--George Bowering


Barry McKinnon's most recent collection, The Centre, Poems 1970-2000, represents thirty years of writing, starting from his home base of Prince George, British Columbia in 1970, a year after he'd moved from Vancouver to teach at the newly-opened College of New Caledonia. Ottawa writer and publisher jwcurry once described McKinnon's poetry as the first half of any piece moving toward one central line, and the second half moving away from it. Subtitled "The Centre: Moving North," McKinnon himself places the collection in his territory of Prince George, as it was there that his formative years as a poet ended, and he came finally into his own. It seems telling that one of his publications after heading north was the chapbook The Death of a Lyric Poet (Poems & Drafts) (Caledonia Writing Series, 1975), as he ended one consideration and began another, drifting away from the shorter lyric to the longer open sequence. But for the rough notes (literally "drafts" of some of the finished pieces), he includes the collection as a whole.

The death of a lyric
poet is living here

at the end of the line
(p 27, Living Here)

Working in the poetic tradition of the procedural open-form, Barry McKinnon's poetry is finely tuned and honed, where the craft is there, but it's the movement that represents. As he said in 1983 (in an interview with Don Precosky in Essays in Canadian Writing #32, Summer 1986), "For me, writing sort of accompanies what I do. I do write very quickly and I don't spend a lot of physical or literal time at it. For me it's a process of waiting for it to happen." You can see it in various pieces such as "Thoughts Driving," that writes "onward up the road, it is you again driving some 10 / year path -"(p 95), or the short piece "Cabin: early morning/June," "not miserable / but a sense of the end of things // - the baby wakes / singing - " (p 94). Even his previous publication titles, used as section titles, suggest the drift: The Death of a Lyric Poet: (Poems & Drafts); The the. (Fragments; and The Centre (An Improvisation). It's as though McKinnon works through a deliberate incompletion, moving and moving further out in each piece until there is nowhere else for him to go, writing lines precisely cut to further a deliberate whole.

In the same interview, McKinnon talks of I Wanted To Say Something, written so soon after he arrived north, and the ending placed in the present he never ended up writing: "So the third part was to take up this bleak, depressed feeling I had about ending up at the beginning of the 1970s in this northern mill town where everybody seems hostile and against any of this so-called sensitivity to the world." It reads almost as though the "last lyrics" he wrote afterward, in the section he begins with, "The Death of a Lyric Poet: (Poems & Drafts)," were part of this same feeling, opening up from the suggestion (brought forward by George Bowering, among others) that you can no longer write lyrics once you enter your thirties.

Not to say that this is simply a book of the north, of simple geography, but written from that north, inhabiting McKinnon's sensibilities. Other pieces in the collection include the series "Arrhythmia" (meaning "irregular heartbeat," a series that as a Gorse Press chapbook won the bpNichol chapbook award in 1994) and the ongoing "sex at thirty-one" series, written every seven years from the age of thirty-one, begun in the 1970s by McKinnon, Brian Fawcett and Pierre Coupey, and written by so many others. In The Centre: Poems 1970-2000, McKinnon only includes his "Sex at 31" and "Sex at thirty-eight" sequences (he claims not to have finished a "sex at 45," but his "sex at 52" appeared in the self-published - a walk in 1998). There is so much of McKinnon writing his life and mortality in his poetry, especially in both "Arrhythmia" and the "sex at 31" series, which are built from an almost inflated sense of mortality. . .



Not much happens in the eleven pieces collected in The Centre: Poems 1970-2000. Their author, Barry McKinnon, sometimes drinks beer in seedy stripper bars or coffee at Tim Horton’s, shops at Sears, drives his truck somewhere, cuts wood, paints his house, marks essays. The real action takes place inside his head, for the pieces collected here are all sequences and serial poems recording the play of their author’s consciousness, a brooding, often emotionally evocative play that makes pleasingly heavy weather of the clouded mind as it registers social and natural as well as psychological phenomena. Not quite a poet of negative capability, except for his habit of remaining broodingly happy in doubt, not quite a poet of the negative way, except for his habit of tracing the paths and particulars of diminishment, McKinnon is the traveller—the mental traveller—of the epigraph borrowed from Robert Creeley’s “Poem for Beginners”: “it is the road / and its turnings that is the traveler, / that comes back and remains unexplained.”

In subsequent texts, the poetic texture tends to thicken, and some of the perceptions change as the poet ages—musing on Sex at 31 and Sex at 38 and Arrhythmia—but the book presents what is essentially an oeuvre, an interrelated body of works bound together by a presiding multi-faceted consciousness whose manifesto is announced in the closing lines of “The North”: “a kind of ownership / not to care.” As these various quotations suggest, ordinary economic life and its sometimes harsh consequences are often at the centre of McKinnon’s poetic attention (the prices noted in the various poems comprise a small history of the Canadian economy over three decades), and the result is a set of works pretty well unique in Canadian poetry—borrowing the misprision of someone at a reading, McKinnon wittily calls his sequences “traumatic monologues” (author statement in The New Long Poem Anthology, ed. Sharon Thesen). How well this serial monologue by an alert “human mind poking here & there for possibilities” (“Journal” from Thoughts/Sketches) will hold up over time is hard to say, but the fact that the earliest poems in the collection do not yet read as dated augurs well for the whole.



The Centre is concerned with process rather than with product and moves characteristically, as the title poem has it, around "a centre to hold to when the / mind goes out of the heart, heart out of the mind." The book is involved not so much with meaningful statements, though it never lacks for seriousness, as it is with statements about meaning. Not so much what, as how, for instance, "this part of the mind / is meaning," as he speculates in the poem "Railway," and then goes on to assert, or at least to accept that "the truth is... / a slightly twisted note not quite true."


09 October 2007